12 June 2016 by Justine
Cycling from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile to Salta, Argentina by Paso Sico, February 2016
After 16 days in the high deserts, we are now on our way to civilization. We get to San Pedro de Atacama in the middle of a huge parade. Colorful costumes, all size of trumpets, music instruments we have never seen, and huge crazy puppet-like masks. All that magic happily blocks our passage through the town. We watch the poor people, sweating their ass off under the strong sun, with running make-up and soaked wet heavy costumes. We could have not chosen a more festive day to get in here. We feel like heroes, celebrated after our travels in such harsh conditions. Arriving from Bolivia’s Paso del Condor, entering Chile is the strangest thing. We actually enter the city before passing through the border point. We could have dropped any kind of forbidden materials on our way in (baby koala, sacred roots, black mumba – name it!), passed the border and could have easily come back for it. Entering Chile was described on several blogs as very strict so I was too busy stressing out about declaring my peanuts to think of any illegal stratagem. We passed all our dusty stuff in the scanner, the officers spotted the garlic I had in the bottom of a plastic container that I had been carrying for weeks, opened it, weighted my cloves, carefully noted that weight in a big book, and thrown those cloves in an assigned garbage bin identified as “confiscated material” (in Spanish of course). We then followed a new cyclist friend to where he was staying and we paid the most we will spend for lodging in the whole trip : 10$/night/person for pitching the tent in the ridiculously crowded backyard of “Sol de Naciente”, the cheapest payable option in town. We planned of staying there two or three nights but we had to change our plans after a short visit to the emergencies on the second day.
Any cyclist will attest that after some rough days on the road, getting a (warm) shower is indescribable. Eating fresh fruits and vegetable is awesome. Chilling on a sofa is pretty underrated… And getting drunk in the desert is what we did on the second night, at “the beach” – the place everyone gathers on the far side of the town. With no water in sight for kilometers, we enjoyed cheap wine like any others and did some socializing with other tourists, two feet in the sand. By the time our new friend Maria Jesus and I decide that it is time to go to bed, JP is moving like an overcooked spaghetti – but “he’s fine”, he says, and chooses to walk back with us. He says he goes for a wee-wee as he walks away from my head lamp’s ray, and doesn’t come back as fast as he would normally. As I realize this, all I hear is “hhhheeulp”. I turn around to find JP with a weird face, pointing a bloody foot :
“I don’t know. But I think my toe is gone… Eh! It doesn’t even hurt!” he says, as he starts walking, but falls on my shoulder for support :
“Does it hurt now?”
“Oh my god I can’t even walk!”
The local police, used to the enthusiasm of tourists with cheap wine, has a parked patrol car a hounded meters from us. Maria Jesus explains the situation to the cops who exasperatedly accept to take JP to the hospital in their car. As he sits in the back seat, four empty cans of beer drop off his pockets : “It’s not what it looks like”. They bring him to the “emergencies” where a tired night nurse wraps his toe without really cleaning anything. Before putting all the gauze, we can see that JP clearly walked on some broken glass that lifted the skin of his big toe and broke a part of his nail. It doesn’t look like we’re going anywhere tomorrow !
. . .
We will stay a whole week in San Pedro, waiting for JP’s toe to heal. There is no point of cycling that high up desert stretch with a wound that needs to be kept clean. Especially in places where dust enters e-ve-ry-where. At the camping, a Chilean tourist insists on taking care of JP’s toe – he’s a paramedic, and without directly doubting the nurse’s abilities, he wishes to make use of his huge first aid kit he brought from Santiago. Let it be! We are about ten, standing or sitting close to JP, curious to see how disgusting it got. The paramedic takes off the gauze. JP’s toe is black at some point, and white or yellow at others. He pulls back the toe’s hanging skin and scrubs under to take off all the sand that is stuck there. Every time JP makes a face, someone gives him a shot of Pisco. After some time, everything looks much better and JP is drunk. Satisfied, the paramedic wraps back The Toe, and advice us to stay at least two more days, which we figure, would probably be a good idea.
San Pedro is a funny weird place. The minute we get there, we feel there’s a special energy – and I’m not here talking about the parade that welcomed us. First, every cool enough person has a bicycle and shows off. Us, we cycle everyday. We cross countries with the bike. We take the plane from and to our home with our bicycle. And we are somehow left aside. Tourers like us aren’t desert bikers with funky bandanas, desert sunglasses, gloves, music in the ears, big sunburns and dusty shit. No, we aren’t hardcore enough. If going in the same direction as us, those guys will leave their rented Chinese bike in San Pedro and take the bus on fully tared Paso Jama while we cycle six days on the full-dirt Paso Sico. Second, we thought of maybe catching a draft of psychedelics, here in Atacama, but the clandestine psytrance parties in the desert we heard there was seem to be part of History now, even though many business in town decorate their places with baby San Pedro cactus and drawings of Amanita mushrooms. We finally leave San Pedro de Atacama without discovering the area. No bike expedition in the desert, nothing. We didn’t find psychedelics – they found us. While drinking good expansive dark draft beer in a rock bar, we met a new friend who was looking for people to enjoy. So we did. In the desert. Under the stars. And it was incredible.
As everyone has a bike in San Pedro de Atacama, we don’t attract too much attention at the camping. As soon as we take off our panniers, we quickly look like any other tourist. But when I come out of the shower, where I delightedly took the time to recover my femininity by washing and brushing my hair and shaving my legs, a group of five Chilean girls are chilling close by and they all stare at my ankles until one finally asks me in English : “what… happened to your… legs?” Remember when I said that my face had swollen to a point where my mother didn’t recognize me? Well, while I was still concerned about my face being abnormal and my lips being cracked, I didn’t realize that my legs also had suffered. First, the sun did burn my skin under my clothes and as I was shaving my legs, big chunks of dead skin was falling off, which left weird light patches. Also, the three days we spent crossing salt deserts, I was wearing short tennis socks – for the style, of course. The end of my leggings were then directly on my ankle (unlike JP who had socks handsomely lifted to half his calf). When my leggings and socks got soaked with salty water, they got salty crispy hard, which, for every tiny movement I did, chafed my skin. After three days, my ankles were covered with open cuts. So I answer those girls, saying that salt had cut my skin and that sun had burn my legs after cycling two weeks and a half in the high Bolivian desert. They nod with big empathy, clueless of what I meant, and offer me a sip of matte.
. . .
On day one of our journey on Paso Sico, we buy a bunch of very expansive medical supply for JP’s toe and we leave San Pedro de Atacama. On day two, we cross the Capricorn tropics for the second time in our life, the first time being in Mozambique exactly one year ago. We leave the pavement and stop a Jeep for a bottle of water – we drank more than we thought and we are a bit short. We have a boring long flat stretch in front of us. We can see 5km ahead without trouble. To make things better, a strong headwind rises. I look at JP and he says out-loud what’s on my mind : “this looks like a stretch we cycled between lake Karakol in and Kyzyl-Art in Tajikistan on the Pamir Highway, doesn’t it?” – yes, it does indeed. The rocks embrace crazy colors that defy nature’s rules. We spend the night few kilometers after Laguna Miscanti and JP realizes he forgot his pants in San Pedro (!?). Nights will be chilly.
On day three, we are finally alone on the road since the salar de Aguas Calientes and Laguna Tuyaito are now behind us – the two main attractions for Jeeps in the area. No more crazy speedy tourist to dust our lungs. It’s just JP, me and his demolished yet healing toe. That night, we camp along the road. There is little wind, the ground is hard enough for JP to walk around without putting his foot into too much dirt (he has to wear his sandals because his wrapped toe doesn’t fit in his shoes) and the stars are outstanding. It’s tent o’clock, we are in our sleeping bags, ready to sleep when we hear a voice : “Hola! Buenas Noches !” JP jumps out of his sleeping bag and asks the voice outside what he wants. We haven’t heard any cars passing for the past four hours. The guy says he’s walking… Walking ? We open the door to a Brazilian with a small backpack and a huge smile. He wants food. We give him sardines and crackers. JP bursts laughing as we hear his story. He pretends that he walked from Toconao today, which is 100km away. He says he wants to sleep in a closed down mine a bit further. “Donde es la mina El Lago ?” (Where is the mine El Lago?) he asks, “No say! Entre cinco y diez kilometros ?!” (I don’t know! Between five and ten kilometers?!) It’s half past ten and he wants to walk another ten kilometers? Does he have a tent, a sleeping bag, a flashlight, some food or water? None of the above. Worst : he doesn’t have any ID. All his belongings have been stolen in Calama, he says, and now wants to go home in Brazil. We offer him a place in our spacious 3 person tent. He takes one of our mattress and we share the other one. We don’t have a spare sleeping bag, but we give him two blankets and wool socks. At 2AM, he wakes us up because he’s cold and we cover him with all our spare clothes.
In the morning of day four, while we cook breakfast, we have just enough time to take a picture of him (as a proof of his apparition) before the first pick-up of the day passes by and takes him. He mentioned last night that he was walking with another guy who wanted to cross the boarder by walk, a guy from Czech Republic.That guy is in that truck too. Quick goodbyes, and they leave us with our three-portion oatmeal in a cloud of dust. That day, we cross Paso Sico before getting to the Argentinean border post. That pass is unreal. All colors are coexisting but a part full of pink rock and sand really catches my attention. I have never seen something like this, and I probably never will again. Fortunately for us, we are going down hill. The road on the Chilean side is remarkably good, but as soon as we see the Argentinean flag, the road becomes pure washboard. We get to the border post where a building dedicated to tourists is offered to us… What? There’s a fully equipped kitchen, a shower, hot water, WiFi, and three ten-bed dorms. JP and I can’t keep our mouth closed as the officer shows us around. Those guys really take care of the tourists! Maybe they could spend a bit of money on the maintenance of their road too?! In that building chills the Czech. We interrogate him about his friend the Brazilian :
“He’s not my friend! That guy is strange. He said to me that his stuff got stolen in Calama, and then told the officers it happened in Arica. There’s something wrong with his story”
“He told us you were trying to cross illegally the border, like him?”
“Me? Of course not. I have all my papers”
“He slept with us last night. Where did you sleep?! He didn’t know if you had a tent”
“I’m all equipped. I slept in my tent, and cooked some food. He wanted to know how much money I had on me, and how much food too… I told him I had little. I didn’t feel like telling him the truth”
(I now play back the scene in the tent where JP shows with great enthusiasm all our fancy gadgets to the Brazilian like our satellite-text-phone, our GPS and our battery pack) “… Where is he now?”
” The officers refused him at the border. They told him to go back to the Brazilian embassy in Santiago! He turned around, by walk”
(When then remember seeing two sets of footprints going to Argentina, and then one set going the other way, then disappearing in the desert) … Yeah. It would definitely be crazy to cross illegally the border in here, and probably just as much to walk the other way to Santiago while Iguazu Falls are only 1700km away…
And there we were, in our luxury free kitchen, imagining the Brazilian, without even a bottle of water, crossing a desert at night. Tempted to stay here for the night, we went for a nap. Two hours. Deep sleep. Bloaw! When we wake up, we check our route. We have two options. The main road, without service for 45km, with 300m less of climb, or, an alternative road, with the village of Catua in 18km. It’s five o’clock, there are huge scary black clouds in the direction of Catua, but a deadly tailwind too. We take that direction. That night, we get hosted by a very nice lady working in a shop in Catua. We are in Argentina, but it looks exactly like Bolivia.
On day five, we take an epic break in a desert, sheltered by the footprint of our lovely Mountain Hardwear tent installed as a tarp. We have a flight in four days from Salta, 220km away. We seem so far… Will we make it without taking a transport?! Very early on day six, JP wakes us up in a very dramatic way. He suffered from what we think is the pressure of the altitude on his bladder – and perhaps too much cheap wine. A very vivid dream of him having a pee in a toilet probably didn’t help neither. Baby wipes once again save the day. And what a day… That day we get to San Antonio de los Cobres. But before, at the high point of Alto Chorillos, 4555m above sea level, we take a break. All we have left is crackers and cans of weird meat spreading. As we eat, black clouds are forming in the sky. What will be our very first Argentinean electric storm rises and soon enough lightening is cracking next to us. We are fully exposed, on a pass, on a full steel bicycle. There is nowhere no hide, so we jump on our bikes and start cycling, thinking : “all of this is temporary”. For about one kilometer, we cruise on the same altitude, on a plateau. Lightning keeps striking down. One lights up twenty meters from me and I pee my pants. “This. Is. TEMPORARY!” We finally go down a little and hail starts falling from the sky. A little better, a little worst. No more lightning, but hail big enough to hurt us. This feels like a paintball war, but without colors, and without reach to the enemy. We stop, we squat, take shelter under the protection of our hats (in those rare situations, you wish you had a Mexican sombrero), and we look at each other : “what do we do now ?!” JP is scared the hail might get bigger… We both imagine how painful golf ball-like hail must be, so we jump back on our bikes. Few hundreds of meters further, the hail is transformed in rain… We are saved. We happily cycle the last 15km under the rain to San Antonio de Los Cobres. There too we enter the village in the middle of a parade. “Thank you, thank you!” we are thinking.
We have little time to enjoy San Antonio – our flight is in three days from Salta. We have made it until here – there is no way we will end up putting our bikes in a truck. The next day, we brake our record. Our biggest regret is to not cycle the classic road 40 from San Antonio to San Jose de Jachal, especially the section to Cafayate. But taking a full week in San Pedro de Atacama doesn’t even allow us to cycle the road 40 plus an apparently gorgeous section of the road 42 through Cardones National Park. We need to stick to the shortest way – the road 51. There is 168km between San Antonio and Salta on that road. After 30km, there is a pass of 4100m, and then, 138km with a drop of 2000m of altitude. This is going to be so much fun ! … Until a huge headwind shows up. But still… We leave San Antonio late, we take our time to climb the pass, we stop for lunch, stop for a snack and still, we manage to cycle 130km. That day is one of those epic days that justify all the suffering that cycling can bring, that answer to all moments where we asked ourselves : “what the f**k I am doing here?!?” and that reward every single meter of climb.
We started with a big pinhead-like way down with tight turns in a background full of gravel. Some flatland, then another big pinhead-like way down with tight turns which fulfills me of empathy for those going up. Our first huge cactus show up. They can be two, three meters high, and the locals use the dried wood, free of spines, to build beautiful furniture and doors. Then, another flat part with huge headwind. A tourer met yesterday told us he met a German couple who gave up cycling that part and took a bus because of the wind – which motivates us of crossing that section without a single complain. Trees are now part of the portrait, and it feels good. Butterflies, insects, birds! Hostile grounds are behind us. We are following a railway since Antonio de Los Cobres. At some point, as we go down, the rail enters crazy tunnels and zigzags besides us, looking for the easiest way. The rail looks unused and gives a reminder of better days. More and more houses and farms are on our way, and green vegetation isn’t only around the villages no more. The vision of our first cow reminds us that Argentina is the land of the biggest meat eaters of the world with X kg/person per year. With almost 1500m less in elevation, we enter a humid semi-jungle environment and spend the day under a living tree and not too far from a family of donkeys. Satisfied on so many levels, we cheer to the color green and we drink 1,5L of wine like if it was juice.
. . .
We get to Salta before noon, have one of those magical moments at a bakery in town where we find all sorts of sandwiches for about a dollar, and realize how dirty we are when we are too shy to enter a restaurant to wash our hands. Everyone stares at our filthy selves and bikes. We still have a huge bag of garbage including three 1L cheap wine tetra packs strapped at the back of our bikes. We can’t help devouring those sandwiches. By the time a lady nicely sitting besides us eats the first scoop of her ice cream cone, we eat about five sandwiches each. We find bicycle boxes. We find a municipal campground that charges 2$ per tent and 1,50$ per person. We find a shuttle bus that can take us, our bikes and our boxes from the center to the airport for 4$ per person. We find a new decent saddle for JP to replace his broken Brooks (his Brooks broke after 16 500km? Really?!). There’s a psytrance festival in three days where we are heading. The stars seem to allign for us. Life is good.
Next stop : El Calafate, Argentina
. . .
TOURERS MET ON THE ROAD
Jarek Castonguay, Québec, Canada – met on desert of Uyuni, cycling from Montréal to Ushuaia
Jose Guilherme Veiga, Brazil – met on Paso del Condor, cycling from Ushuaia to Canada
Jean-Philippe Faure, France – met on Paso del Condor, cycling from Ushuaia to Colombia
Corey Gonzalez, California – met on Paso del Condor, motobiking from Peru to Argentina
Philip Panchenko, UK – met on Paso del Condor, motobiking from Peru to Ushuaia
EungHo Kim, South Korea – met in San Pedro de Atacama, cycling like crazy
Jose Elias, Brazil – met in San Antonio de Los Cobres, cycling and climbing different sections
Galli Juyun, Shangai – met in Salta, cycling around the world for the past 20 years