San Pedro is at once delightful and shocking. A small, cute, desert town creaking under the weight of tourism. After a slog through the Lagunas we happily throw our weight in the mix and make the most of it – eating, drinking, lazing and even taking a tour. It’s a disconnected experience, travelling in an enclosed motorised box, then disembarking at a very picturesque place where hundreds of others also disembark from their motorised boxes. A pleasant day, but I’m more distracted by tourist watching than the geysers.
Touristing in San Pedro, overlooking the Valle de la Luna
Many menu del dias back on our weedy frames we set out to ride over Paso Sico and into northern Argentina. We’re back in low altitude, and in the Atacama desert, which demands we ride early or shrivel up and spontaneously combust in the heat.
The road to Socaire
The flat paved road out of town is novel for its relative firmness, but once we start climbing the moaning about the heat comes thick and fast (mostly from me) and Andy drops behind me. The only time I’m ever faster is when the temps rise above 35 degrees and he ceases to function properly. In consolation, while I secure some beds for the night in Socaire, the guide for a small tour group stopping in kindly furnishes Andy with their leftovers – a cold beer and coke. I’m never sure whether these gifts are out of admiration or pity, but I’ll take it.
Leaving the main road the next morning we detour through a national park to take in some lakes. Maps show a route leads out the other side to rejoin the road, easy peasy. On entering the park we must pay for tickets – something Chile is far too fond of for my liking – and while perusing their maps we make the mistake of telling them our plans. Cue fervent claims that the road out does not exist. We’re told to wait while someone with presumably greater authority is summoned to repeat the same thing: THOU SHALT NOT PASS. Oh, I do believe we shall. Our insistence results in another summoning, another denial (although slower, presumably because they think we just don’t understand), then eventually someone admits the road is there but closed and no, we still can’t use it. And then, inching towards progress, they say if we wait until the park closes at 4pm we can sneak out that way, as long as no one sees us. The reason being that our rogue behaviour is liable to infect others with crazy ideas which will lead to everyone wanting to follow suit. If you think this sounds absurd, consider that almost every person there is on a guided tour on bus transport with no autonomy and you’ll understand why I was tearing my hair out at this logic. I have the distinct feeling we’ve entered a new country – one where people like their rules, and you best be sticking to them – and I miss the lawlessness of Peru and Bolivia.
We concede, mostly due to realising we can’t win this debate. We also know we can’t wait till 4pm. With limited water and the raging lunchtime winds approaching, our best option is to make a break for it. A poorly chosen shortcut and moment for said escape mean we instantly have an irate park ranger (plainclothed and previously unspotted) yelling and sprinting after us. I obediently come to a halt but Andy is oblivious, or feigning oblivion, tearing down the hillside and way ahead before he happens to check back. I’m left to calm down the young breathless Chileño, who is yelling at me in rapid-fire Spanish, demanding to know WHY, BUT WHY, WHY?! (That’s all I could catch) Umm… because I need to go over there? Not party to the previous conversations he turns out to be easier to flip to sympathising with our cause. After some negotiations we have a pleasant chat, helping each other with our Spanish and English, discussing the differences in national parks in Chile and New Zealand, and part ways on much better terms, even managing to extract a ‘Buen viaje!’ as he happily waves us off down the forbidden trail.
The ‘non-existent’/prohibido escape route past Laguna Miñiques
The landscape is vast, with brilliant blue skies and shimmering gold grasses framing perfect volcanic peaks. It’s a worthy setting for a futile battle with the elements. The wind indeed picks up, right on cue, and the relentless blasting is exhausting. I suggest, advise, then plead that we pitch the tent in one of the vaguely protected roadside ditches which are beginning to look rather delightful to me, but apparently still underwhelming to Andy. A crappy campspot in a beautiful area always feels like a failure. He coaxes another stretch of pedalling out of me, and we’re rewarded with a spectacular spot and moderate shelter. Not before a short hike a bike through some vicious looking plant life to get there, naturally. Thankfully the tyres hold their own, though the leg skin doesn’t fare quite as well.
The calm mornings and beautiful light make it easy to potter around camp for too long, soaking up the surroundings, always convinced that maybe today will not be the sufferfest of roaring gales that yesterday was. You’d be a fool for falling for that one though, the Puna stays calm for no one. Even earlier than usual it arrives to torment us. The crosswind and occasional sand blastings are as brutal as the scenery is beautiful. A few hours in and too few kilometres on the clock we are reduced to bracing against our bikes, pushing at a meagre 2km per hour. On the flat no less. Occasionally the snot blows from my running nose and thwacks across my sunglasses and it is this in particular that has me questioning my recent decisions in life. We dump the bikes in the middle of the quiet road and lie flat next to them to catch a break. Morning tea sees us cowering in a ditch devouring biscuits. A welcome bend in the road turns the crosswind into a frantic tailwind, propelling us uphill at terrifying pace. Another bend grinds progress to a halt and we stagger the last few hundred meters into a mining camp, hopeful to find signs of life.
Two weathered men are stationed there to keep an eye on things in the off-season. Could we possibly spend the night? The wind, we say, motioning towards a solid flag pole quivering violently. We’re gruffly invited in after it’s confirmed beyond reasonable doubt that we don’t plan to move in for longer than a night.
Sweet, sweet, protective shelter and leaving the mining camp on another calm and beautiful morning
The long orange building is a series of four bunk dorms, one of which becomes ours for the night. There’s a kitchen at one end, a bathroom at the other that looks and smells as though they are none too fond of cleaning. The two men don’t say a word to each other the whole day, night and morning. One watches TV in his room while at the opposite end the other watches the same channel in the kitchen. The gas hob burns on full in an attempt at heating. A scrawny cat strolls the hall like a peacekeeper, excited to have new companions and checking on us often. The evening passes awkwardly in silence and in the morning we leave a note of many thanks and hit the road early.
The Argentine half offers up even more barren landscapes and we mash through sand and bump over washboard on quiet roads for a few more days to reach San Antonio.
Over these last few days Andy deteriorates, feeling lethargic and feverish but pushing on. There’s not much choice around here. A few days rest in Salta is in order, so we stash the bikes at the guesthouse, tell the owners we’ll be back in three or four days, five tops, and hop on a bus. We spend the next two weeks touring the hospitals of Salta and mangling our way through medical conversations in Spanish with many doctors and, at best, a tenuous grasp on proceedings. When we realise we have no idea when or if we’ll be back on the road I take a day trip back to San Antonio to retrieve the bikes. Eventually they conclude they have no idea what is going on, and we should head home where the resources and testing will be better. Days later we suddenly, surreally find ourselves back in New Zealand. It’s several months before this will be tentatively diagnosed as an auto inflammatory disease.
San Pedro de Atacama – Socaire – Mina Laco – Catua – San Antonio de Los Cobres
Ridden mid October 2016