A Two Day Bike Tour in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Oct 2015

Cycling along the dry dusty gravel road it quickly becomes clear that, regardless of how scientists classify the driest places of the world, this desert, the Atacama, is your driest place on Earth, and slowly but surely it’s claiming every last bit of moisture your body has on offer. Make no mistake, at an altitude of 2400m, this place is dry. The gravel road is at least relatively flat and makes for straight forward riding. This is good news because we’re just trying to get used to the extra weight on our backs and the 6 litre water bottles strapped to the bikes using strips of old inner tube. How did we end up bike touring in a way that clearly screams ‘makeshift preparation’?

Arriving in San Pedro de Atacama

It’s a warm spring day in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. At the bus station the newest arrivals swing their backpacks over their shoulders and excitedly start walking into town. The sun is warm, the air is dry, and the streets are dusty and littered with potholes. Across the road a pack of dogs, probably strays, is negotiating the subdivision of canine territory. Strolling into the main street it is evident that San Pedro is a tourist oriented town and the local game is getting the new arrivals to buy into your brand of sightseeing while they're still caught in the headlights. Trying our best to avoid the onslaught of sales people handing out flyers and hurling random English phrases in our direction we surge ahead and make finding accommodation the first order of business. During the search we discovered that just like most of the blogs had warned, San Pedro is an expensive place. Even the most basic 'camping-on-a-patch-of-dirt' accommodation comes at a premium price, not to mention food and of course, the main commodity, guided tours to the surrounding sights.

“Setting off down the road it took us a while to get used to the extra weight, and rental bikes never feel as familiar as your own steed”

After some time we found a place to offload our luggage and then started window shopping for places to rent bikes. The original plan was to spend most of our time in the Atacama riding from one place of interest to the next, and doing impromptu overnight camping, but logistically bike touring in this part of the world is a bit more complicated than we thought. If you bring your own bike with proper panniers and everything else that goes with it, of course there is no problem, and indeed it has been done many times before. The main challenge is water. Like anyone who spends time in the outdoors can tell you, it’s the heaviest commodity per unit volume you will ever carry, and in the Atacama there just aren’t that many sources of fresh drinkable water, so you have to carry a lot of it. The other complication is that the rental bikes don’t have panniers mounted to them. In addition to this most of the rental shops won’t rent their bikes overnight, unless you stay in a hotel. Anything else is deemed too unsafe for fear of theft. After several hours of research we eventually spoke with the people at Apacheta, a bike rental shop in the main town square. They had panniers, “parilla” in Spanish (not to be confused with a cooking grill), but they only rented 29” bikes, which meant the panniers didn’t fit. The owner, Carlos, was friendly enough to recommend another shop who mounted the panniers on their 26” bikes and, after explaining that we intended to camp in the desert somewhere, and therefore theft was unlikely to be a concern, they agreed to rent them to us for two days.

The next morning we reported to the bike shop ready to go. We left most of our stuff at the shop and only took the essentials, which turns out to be quite a lot in volume. In our 50L backpacks we each had a sleeping bag, inflatable sleeping mat, and I carried the tent and cooking gear. We had some basic food for the two day trip, warm clothes for the evening, and of course lots of water. Nine litres each to be exact: three litres in bladders in the backpacks, and another six litre jug each mounted to the panniers using strips of old inner tube we found lying around in the shop. Setting off down the road it took us a while to get used to the extra weight on our backs, and of course rental bikes never feel as familiar as your own steed who awaits your return home.

Valle de Catarpe

The relatively simple two-day route took us into the Valle de Catarpe past the ruins at Pukará de Quitor, and back to town via the ‘tunnel’, las Cornisas and the Valle de la Muerte. The road into the Valle de Catarpe follows the Rio San Pedro, which, from its northern catchments near Machuca and Rio Grande, provide much needed nutrition to some of the only greenery you’ll see in the Atacama. The river flows past San Pedro and into the great salt flats of the Salar de Atacama. We didn’t drink any water from this river based on the advice that it might have higher than acceptable concentrations of arsenic.

The geology of the Atacama desert is dominated by volcanic rocks. Here the volcanic activity is fuelled by an active subduction zone on the west coast of the South American continent. Oceanic crust is forced underneath the lower density continental crust. As it melts, because of the increased pressure and temperature, it produces magma, which forces its way to the surface forming many of the active volcanoes in the Andes mountain chain. The magma is often enriched in elements that do not typically arrange themselves into solid mineral structures. These so-called ‘incompatible elements’ (because they are incompatible with the most common minerals) include copper, silver, and gold, hence the large number of mineral deposits in the South American Andes. They also include arsenic, which, like many other elements, can easily make its way into the water sources.

“In a cruel twist of fate the moon shone bright in the night sky, drowning all evidence of the Milky Way”

Three kilometres from town we decided to spend a few hours walking around Pukará de Quitor, a fortification used by the Atacameño people in the 12th century. Another four kilometres down the road we reached the Capilla de San Isindro, an impressive chapel with bright white walls starkly contrasted against the rugged red rocky slopes of the Cordilerra de la Sal. We spent a few minutes enjoying the scenery and then turned back to explore the Devil’s Canyon.

The Garganta del Diablo is a narrow gorge with steep crumbly walls on either side. The path into the gorge turns to the east off the main road in the Valle de Catarpe and wends its way deeper into the hills. Every so often large overhanging cliffs force you to duck your head and on a few occasions we had to push the bikes along sections of the gorge too narrow to ride through. Eventually the heat and the dry air drained our energy supplies. Having explored as much as we could we found a spot where, combined with the time of day, there was at least a little shade. We sat down, had a snack and almost immediately fell back for a well-deserved nap. An hour or so later we found a camping spot at the end of a short inlet into the main gorge. In no time at all the tent was pitched and we made a basic but very tasty dinner of mashed potato and sausages. In a cruel twist of fate the moon shone bright in the night sky, drowning all evidence of the Milky Way. After a long day and under the glowing moon it took no encouragement to get to bed for a proper night’s rest.

Las Cornisas and Valle de la Muerte

The next morning we rose as first light crept over the canyon walls. With the experience of day one we wanted to try and beat the heat, so we quickly made breakfast, and saddled up for the return trip. Turning north-west out of Valle de Catarpe the relatively short, steep, and bumpy road leads up towards a narrow tunnel. It seems strange to have a tunnel here and I wonder if it was used for some other purpose in a past life. Maybe it served as a storage facility, or it was used as a trade route. Certainly it is too narrow for cars and the giant boulder in the middle of the tunnel won't permit any vehicles. My Spanish is not good enough to ask a local about it, and so I’m left guessing the reason for such a laborious construction in such a desolate environment. On the other side of the tunnel a path turns south off the main road and curves up and around towards the north-south running ridge known as Las Cornisas. From here you can look down upon the rare greenery in Valle de Catarpe and the contrasting desolation of the Valle de la Muerte.

Across the desert plains Mt Licancábur, along with an impressive chain of volcanoes, stands high looking down on our meager explorations. The path continues along the ridge rolling up and down until it eventually joins up with a road that falls down into the Valle de la Muerte. The ride into the valley is a relatively straight forward downhill cruise, apart from the occasional flurry of loose sand testing your ability to keep the front wheel afloat and travel in a straight line. The final part of the ride is a short section of sealed road back into San Pedro de Atacama. We stopped at our accommodation, offloaded the backpacks and returned the bikes to the shop. There is no doubt we would have loved to do more multi-day riding and camping, but we simply weren’t prepared for it and the sights we wanted to see during the 7 day visit were too far apart. Maybe next time we can dedicate an entire trip to cycle touring and spend more time watching the stars in the clear skies of the desert.

The landscapes of the Atacama are spectacularly alien and I can easily say we thoroughly enjoyed our time there. However, our expectations in terms of the local culture were grossly unrealistic, and whether you choose to go or not is up to you and your expectations. In my mind I saw San Pedro de Atacama as a small village vibrant with local culture and welcoming to visitors. Instead, the realistic observation is that local authenticity is nowhere to be found and what remains is a money-making machine raking in the profits under the guise of catch phrases like 'eco-tourism’, ‘adventure travel’, and ‘eco-cultural’, all cleverly engineered to appeal to the the naive child who lives in all of us when we dream of the unknown places of the world. Confusingly I will almost go as far as saying I regret visiting San Pedro, but this is not true, because it is such a practical example of how societies function. What is local culture, and what is an authentic experience? Is any experience in itself not an authentic representation of a place and its people in that time? I suspect we measure authenticity, especially while traveling, relative to expectations shaped by the history of the places and cultures we visit, and then we find ourselves disappointed to discover people similar to ourselves who are clearly just trying to make a living from what resources are available to them.

I wish I could have spent more time in the Atacama. More time to practice Spanish, to talk to the real locals, to learn about their culture, new and old, and to hear their opinions and ideas. I am drawn to deserts and mountains, so there is no doubt that the Atacama will see me again, and next time it will be on my terms.