Antofagasta to San Pedro de Atacama

Ghost town
The landscape was usually gorgeous in its naked way, the temperature spot-on for riding, and the mountainous nature of the terrain kept the vistas changing all the time. The air was uncommonly clean. It had last seen landfall in Antartica and carried few pollutants. On the Chilean side of the Andes the ground, though barren, was mostly solid. So solid that banging in the tent pegs was like trying to nail concrete. So despite the constant wind I never encountered a dust storm. As a consequence it seemed I could see forever. Judgeing distance was next to impossible. On more than one ocassion, a mountain pass spotted in the morning (light reflecting off the road surface) wasn't finally tackled until late afternoon and yet it seemed as though it was maybe only 10 or 15km distant.Windswept graveyards (pictured, between Antofagasta and Calama) of nameless crosses tangled in the wire skeletons of wreaths. In one graveyard mummified limbs poked from fractured crypts. Frequent earthquakes see to it that the concrete crypts eventually crack apart - their desecated occupants left on show. Abandoned nitrate mining towns dot the landscape. They boomed until the 1920s but competition from manufactured fertilisers eventualy killed them off. Little is left now, just the shells of buildings and the graveyards.

For most of my way North I had a South Westerly tailwind pushing me along. This made a huge difference to my enjoyment of the ride. Distance was covered effortlessly, well, you know what I mean, and my mood was always up. Traffic was light, the sky was blue, birds would have twittered in the trees if there were any and everything was right with the world.

Calama, is one of the unfeasably large towns of the Atacama desert. It's not an especially attractive place but getting there was an achievement. Just for once I'd battled a headwind all day. The road was straight, uphill and exposed. Late in the afternoon I crested a pass and could see Calama about 15kms distant. The wind had slowed me to a crawl, the town was at least 3 hours away and my legs were about to fall off. I sat down to eat and started eyeing potential camp sites. A water pipeline pumping station just before the pass offered shelter from the wind and road but every passing motorist looking for a sheltered spot to take a dump thought so too. Yuck. As I sat, eating and estimating if my water could stretch for dinner and breakfast (no), Flatula, the god of tailwinds looked down upon me, smiled, and let rip. The wind swung through 180 degrees in a matter of minutes and ended up blasting me into Calama with barely a pedal to turn.

From Calama it's about 100km to San Pedro de Atacama. For most of the way you can see the road stretching ahead and up to the rim of the basin around San Pedro. I think the pass is about 3500m. It seems that no matter how far you go the top isn't getting any closer. Along the way there is a tree. Wow. It's kept alive by passersby stopping to donate water. I'm not the only cyclist to marvel at it (and make use of its shade). The tree seems to have its own cycling fan club: 1 2 (links open in new window), many more references to it exist on the internet. Picture below is the view from the rim looking into the basin.
The road to San Pedro

At the base of the long drop into the valley the road suddenly turns 90 degrees. It's not as though it has to avoid anything. One truckie missed the curve. The twisted wreck and a forlorn memorial (pictured) are all that's left.

Spring fed streams allow the oasis of San Pedro de Atacama to exist. Stretching to the south is the Salar de Atacama, a salt lake.
The Oasis of San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro is a tourist honeypot, and justifiably so. It sits in a basin surrounded by an oasis, volcanic peaks, Incan and pre Incan ruins and dramatic eroded landforms with amazing textures and colours. The town has a large selection of accommodation - camping, backpackers & upmarket and has an interesting archeological museum if looking at dried people is your thing. But it is not so much the town itself as its environs that make it an attractive base.
San Pedro's church

fortress A few kilometres north lie extensive pre Inca ruins on a hillside. Climb to the lookout at the highest point above the ruins for some splendid views.

Another easy day ride is out to the Valle de la Luna (valley of the moon) where eroded salt hills make for a surreal landscape. I had the whole area to myself for an afternoon. The guidebooks say to go on a group tour out there for the sunset - and all the obedient backpackers do just that, so if you want to explore on your own, go anytime except sunset. On a warm day the whole area cracks and pops like a glacier as it expands and the salt slabs shift against one another. The earth sounds hollow in places when air pockets between layers of salt reverberate to your footsteps - its like walking on a giant drum.
Salt slabs

A pastel scene
The scenery on the salar is muy fantastico. The basin rim is dotted with volcanoes. Pastel hues colour the ground and mountainsides (top picture). The red hillsides hide verdant Quebradas - fissures with spring fed streams. The pictured one is the Quebrada de Jerez at Toconao about 35km south of San Pedro.

Sunsets when I camped on the salar were memorable neon pink affairs. Just for once I managed to find a sandy spot (as opposed to a concrete hard one) to put up my tent.

All text and images copyright Syd Winer 2004