The Puna de Atacama is a windswept, arid, high altitude, desert-like plateau on the border of Chile and Argentina. If you think that sounds a little inhospitable, you’d be right. But when it is not blowing a ferocious gale and exfoliating your already dry and leathery skin with airborne sand, it can be stunningly bright, calm, warm and beautiful. It is known to hurl abuse at the few cyclists passing through (while they hurl obscenities back) but still, somehow, leave them wanting more. Remote, barren and harsh, it’s a place where anything beyond the basic necessities of shelter, water and food fade into the background. It is beautifully simple.
Having rested and refuelled in Tolar Grande, we retrace our pedal strokes over part of Salar de Arizaro. The trundle over its haggard surface (nothing like the more famous, smooth and sparkling salars of Bolivia) treats us to some pleasant rolling but for the most part can be described as a real butt buster. An ass anhilator. A derrière destroyer. And that’s saying something, because we ride dirt roads most of the time and rarely do our asses remember it the next day. Still, we are relieved that the wind gives us almost all day to ride across its 70km or so before really cranking up. And it’s flat, so I suppose it’s actually pretty easy, all things considered… The puna has a way of making one pathetically grateful for the bones it throws your way.
Faced with a fork in the road the next day, we opt for the better surface, and climb away from the Salar with spectacular views back. Before long that surface too deteriorates into sand and washboard, but the scenery is strange, wonderful and otherworldly – Salty streaks, coloured hills, weird cones and mounds, and a tiny, lurid green desert oasis. All this salinisation makes it an agricultural wasteland, so inhabitants are few and far between. We pass only two tiny settlements in five days, with a combined population of maybe 20.
We skirt around the edges of Salar de Antofalla for a few days, at times in glorious (but suspicious) calm, always followed by roaring winds. There is short lived hilarity one afternoon as we pedal hard, downhill, into a fierce headwind while being pelted with coarse sand. We pat ourselves on the back for bringing extra food, and don’t hesitate to cut the day rather short. Desperately eyeing up unlikely camp spots, I begin to appreciate just how impressive the lack of any kind of features in the landscape is. An area scattered with rocks looks to be about as good as things will get and we set about building a wall to pitch the tent behind, while being pummelled by gale force winds. A workers truck waves us over to gift us bottles of water, which we gratefully accept. They also offer biscuits and I can’t explain what came over me at this moment but I responded with ‘Thanks, but we have lots of food’, which I obviously regret for the rest of the evening. (Only later when reading this post does Andy find out they offered biscuits… Sorry Andy)
I love a good barren landscape, and thrive on these big empty spaces, but at some point while climbing Quebrada del Diablo it crosses into pure, bland bleakness. Made more dull by cloudy skies, I think maybe this is just too grim, even for me. Rolling hills of brown and grey sand, dirt and gravel, utterly devoid of life. But before I get too deep in my hole, the landscape changes again and we wind through black sand and lava fields sprouting dry and gnarly golden plants that look more dead than alive. An opportunity for shelter that’s too unusual to pass up.
Antofagasta de la Sierra is a dusty, ramshackle, friendly little town that’s largely asleep when two hungry cyclists roll in. Dreams of empanadas will not be fulfilled at the desired time, which is immediately. Argentina’s culture of long siestas and 10pm dinners will take some getting used to. Finding accommodation in the afternoon is also a struggle, reminiscent of Peruvian and Bolivian villages, where hostal owners would also be out working in the fields until sunset, leaving us sitting on doorsteps for hours. Luckily we find Pascuala, standing outside her mint green house in the middle of town where she rents out rooms. The room is a tiny concrete box, but I like that our poor Spanish does not deter her from making lots of chit chat, so we move in for a couple of nights. We take over her kitchen, laundry and back patio, and she fusses over us to make sure we have everything we need. Empanadas are still what we need, but it is not to be in Antofagasta.
Departing Tolar Grande. Early starts are rewarded with calm and clear conditions
Lunch in the middle of Salar de Arizaro, and where I finally decide to taste some of that salt…
Cute sign, cruel road
Cono de Arita, standing at a lofty 122m above the Salar
Not the most scenic spot, but the best we’d seen in the 87km from Tolar Grande. The wind, loose ground and lack of rocks to hold down pegs made for some interesting tent pitching
Climbing up from Salar de Arizaro
The oasis of Antofallita, so tiny it doesn’t even get its own original name, just a derivative of neighbouring Antofalla
Wiggling around the Salar de Antofalla
Rookie campground. After a calm day we convinced ourselves this valley must just be very sheltered and pitched out in the open, only to be hammered by hours of strong winds as the sun went down
All sand and salt, but it’s no day at the beach. Turns out Bolivia does not have a monopoly on bad roads
We’ve made some half-hearted rock walls in the past, and elaborated on those of others, but this constitutes our most extensive efforts to date. Desperate times, desperate measures…
Coco, my trusty steed, sporting an extra complement of water bottles (a total of nine) for recent sections
Climbing up towards Quebrada del Diablo and looking back over the Salar de Antofalla
Morning light in the lava field. Spot the tent among the rocks
A few signs of life starting to show…
Great descent and colours on the last stretch to Antofagasta
Tolar Grande – Antofallita – Antofalla – Antofagasta de la Sierra
268km over 5 days, which allowed for some short days when the wind picked up
Tolar Grande has accommodation (Municipal Hostería is cheapest), decent supplies and an ATM. Wifi can be found at the school (PW: MineriaSalta).
After the stretch over the Salar de Arizaro you’ll see a mining camp just up the hill. You can get water here, though we didn’t bother. Apparently they’re not keen on people camping there.
Very few camping opportunities on the first day as it’s very exposed. First camp ‘shelter’ at about 87km where the road splits, which is nothing more than a low hole dug out of the ground big enough for a tent. We went left towards Antofallita. Around 96km is a better area to camp. The climb is on good surface, then plenty of sand and washboard until Antofalla, but almost all rideable.
Right at the fork is also an option, check out Velofreedom for notes on that.
Km 114.5 – Antofallita has a tiny stream running through it which the road crosses. Given how green it is there I suspect it’s reliable. It’s definitely inhabited here, so other water will be available.
Km 157 – Antofalla has water but no shops/facilities that we saw.
Not much shelter south of Antofalla. We built a rock wall after getting hit by some crazy headwinds, it’s on the right in an area strewn with rocks at km 179 / 22km south of Antofalla / 25.666501 S 67.724209 W
Km 220 – from here there are some awesome lava fields, nice for camping.
Some water after this where the valley narrows but looked very saline so we wouldn’t want to drink it.
Throughout this area we had to do some pretty creative tent pegging as the ground is often loose and sandy, with few rocks available to weight them down. The wind sometime just pulls them right out!
Small amount of traffic throughout, but very little on the last section through Quebrada del Diablo
Antofagasta has plenty of accommodation, shops, wifi at a few places and an ATM.
Also check out Dominik Birk’s post on hiking in the area. He helped us with some planning, though ended up taking a different route after his own trip was foiled by insane winds.