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San Pedro de Atacama to Salta (over Paso Jama)

ARGENTINA | Monday, 18 October 2010 | Views [3863] | Comments [4]

8/10/10 to 15/10/10                                                              609 km

In San Pedro another longer than planned stay mostly waiting for my irritated right eye to clear up. I had been experiencing irritation and sensitivity to light for the last few days of the lagunas route and with all the sand and wind we had assumed it was just a ‘foreign body’ like some windblown grit stuck in there. After a week of eyedrops, rest and avoiding overexposure to sunlight and the dusty sandblown streets of San Pedro and still no drastic improvement, we decided it was probably wise to see an opthamologist before embarking on the remote Paso Jama route to Salta. So after an hour and a half bus trip to Calama the Opthamologist found nothing seriously wrong, just suffering from ‘dry eyes’ with the dry altiplano climate and prescribed some tears and an antibiotic solution. But ironically for my first opthamologist visit since primary school days what she did find was that I need glasses. I failed the sight test! “Is that an ‘R’ or an ‘F’?”. Well I chose wrong and the truth was revealed. I didn’t know the world could look so clear with lenses!

Another day of prescribed rest before we finally headed out from San Pedro with the intention of ‘hitching’ a ride back up the 2100m long straight climb that we had descended the week before. After all we had already climbed to 4600m enough times in Bolivia and the climb hadn’t appeared all that interesting on the way down...straight, steep and unrelenting. By our calculations it would take us a day and a half to get back to the junction with Bolivia. A day and a half that we thought we could use more productively. What we hadn’t counted on was almost zero traffic heading in that direction other than tour groups and full trailers of cars bound for Paraguay...so the idea of an easy hitch faded very quickly.

Eventually Nils and Caro got a ride in an international bus bound for Salta so we agreed to meet them up the top once we had got a lift too. 

But for us, nothing, nada not a single car for over an hour. By the time it reached 12:45pm we had had enough of waiting and decided we would just have to give it a crack and maybe before the hill started or somewhere up it we might be luck enough to still get a lift. 

Anna waiting in vain for a ride that never came. That’s Volcan Licancabur in the background (far left) and our road 2100m higher (just to the right of the volcanoes)

So 11km into the wind and gradual climbing before the real climb started. By 3:30pm we had made it up 600m and 20 km from San Pedro when finally a friendly Chilean, Jonathan in a pick-up stopped for us (actually the only car that stopped for us...too bad if we were in real trouble and needed help!). He kindly let us throw the bikes and gear in the back and drove us to the junction to Hito Cajones and Bolivia only some 26km further but back up to 4600m. 

We had also passed on a message with a passing car to let Nils and Caro know not to wait for us as we might not have got a lift up the climb. At 4:10pm and at 4600m it was freezing cold, and the sun was already getting lower in the west so a quick gear change, a big thanks to Jonathan and back on the bikes to quickly get over the 4780m pass and to find somewhere comfortable to camp for the night before the sun dropped away for good behind the mountains for another freezing night on the altiplano.

We had just started seriously looking for a camp spot when right on cue a recently constructed ‘rest area’ appeared on the left hand side with a low wall, a bench and some clear flat ground to pitch the tent hopefully out of the wind. A speedy ‘pitch the tent-cook-eat-get inside the tent’ routine before we froze.

Our ‘pretty damn high camp’but not quite our highest, very close at a mere 4650m. But maybe the coldest night ever as water was freezing in the drink bottles the moment the sun went down!

While cooking dinner this little guy appeared out of nowhere, ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ our only camp visitor for the night not surprisingly. Amazing how he can survive up here in the altiplano desert and the cold without a single sign of vegetation, let alone anything he could eat.

We knew that Nils and Caro were still well ahead of us (one passing motorist even said “they were going like Lance Armstrong...they’ll almost be at the border by now!”) so we were up as early as possible in the cold, the sun warming the tent and our freezing hands. Amazingly beautiful altiplano riding through the red volcanic desert, multicoloured layers of volcanic slopes, a huge herd of vicuñas, some flamingoes, and frozen streams.

With some strong tailwinds we had already covered 35km in a just over an hour when the figures of two cyclists caught our attention ahead. It was Nils and Caro, just on the road after also experiencing a freezing cold night at 4500m, but unlike us, the mountains had blocked the morning sun for them meaning a late departure and giving us time to catch them up.

The decision was made then to push for the Argentinian border that same day, still some 75kms away but only one more ‘big’ pass at nearly 4800m and with some generous winds at our backs, maybe it would be possible. Unfortunately the extreme headwinds on the climb to 4800m was just too much for Caro to bare after the experiences on the lagunas route and getting blasted on and off the road for a few kms it just wasn’t fun for her any longer. so when offered a ride in a truck to the border she was more than happy to accept. For the three of us stubborn bikers it was then a spectacular ride through enchanted desert valleys with eroded standing stones and ancient eroded volcanic hills, past white salares and multi coloured lagoons with a raging tailwind pushing us on our way. 

Twice more above 4400m and then a downhill to Paso Jama and into Argentinian territory for the first time, reuniting with Caro at the YPF petrol station by 4:30pm who had found an abandoned house nearby where we were allowed to camp for the night, and we could use the bathrooms and get water from the cafe at the YPF. A huge 103km day on the altiplano of amazing riding all above 4200m!

Bienvenidos a Argentina! After nearly 2 and a half years since leaving home we finally reached our final country on the trip and a place we had been looking forward to for a long time!

Another long 114km day this time our first 100+ day in Argentina driven on by the prospect  of cold beer and empanadas to celebrate my 31st birthday in style after some remote and wild riding across Paso Jama.

Nothing like a bit of 'beer and empanada motivation' to put in a big day and get to Pastos Chicos restaurant/bar!

Nils riding through an enchanted valley under towering giant cactus between Susques and Salinas Grandes.

A rare snap of the four of us taken by Berndt (a friendly Austrian man who invited us for beer and wine in Purmamarca...if we made it there that was)

The final pass up to 4100m where some dark clouds moved in quickly and it began to snow. Perhaps it would be our last time above 4000m in the Andes...we both felt a little sentimental, and a hint of sadness with this thought after so many adventures, high camps, lonely roads and beautiful scenery above 4000m in the high Andes of Peru, Bolivia and now Chile and Argentina.

And then the drop, straight down the other side.....

Still going....

All the way down, 2000m in total of switchbacks and sweeping corners to Purmamarca at 2200m deep in the quebrada and backed by the ‘Cerro de los siete colores’. It was dark and overcast in the mountains, and the cold wind was blowing the poplars and willows strongly, so instead of feeling the long longed for warmth of the lower desert climate we were still rugged up and freezing when we pulled into the first real ‘campground’ style camping we have seen since the United States. 

‘Cerro de los siete colores’ and ‘camping’ Argentinian style in Purmamarca

Then we rejoined the main highway coming from La Quiaca, so the traffic increased, as did the heat and the wind on our way down still to San Salvador de Jujuy at 1200m.

A lot of people have talked about the dramatic change coming down off the altiplano after several months above 3600m into the north of Argentina especially with the colours returning, the greens of the trees, the colours of flowers etc... But for us what was even more dramatic than the colours was the return of all things ‘olfactory’ and smelly...from the sweet nectar of the flowers, green leaves of the trees and the fresh smell of water in rivers to the stench of a dead animal on the roadside or cow manure in the fields. It’s funny, I never actually felt those things leave us when we were riding so high, but now all the senses returned in overdrive.

From San Salvador de Jujuy we took the Ruta 9 to Salta via La Cornisa, eventually a beautifully quiet narrow laned road with only a handful of tourist cars, no truck traffic and some gradual but long climbing past the reservoirs and up through dry forest with bromelids hanging from the large trees up to 1500m before following the next valley all the way down to the large city of Salta. 

In Salta we had long been looking forward to staying at the Casa de Ciclista of Ramon but unfortunately while Ramon and his mum Tina were extremely friendly to us (and the three friendly dogs of the house), his brother was not so and we had to make way after 3 nights for some incoming random family from Spain. A bit of a disappointing first Casa de Ciclista experience for Nils and Caro after we had hyped it up so much over the past 8 days.  

Still we managed to undertake some chores of bike maintenance, clothes washing as well as eat some of Tina’s famous empanadas, drink some ‘Fernet’ (a strong liquor made from various herbs) and experience first hand “el dia de la madre’ (mothers day) celebrations Argentinian suburban style ie. the neighbourhood party starting at midnight, more beef empanadas than you could poke a ‘fat argentinian’ at, kids running around hyped up on coke until 4am...I think you can get the idea. Thanks Ramon for the hospitality, your mums empanadas, sharing a short time with us and putting us in the right direction for bike workshops to get some jobs done!

Paso Jama was a truly spectacular ride. Not quite as dramatic scenery as the ‘lagunas route’ but very close to it especially on the Chilean side. And with the smooth paved highway taking us across the deep red sandy altiplano desert 100km a day, instead of grinding and pushing through that sand like in Bolivia, we were able to enjoy the surrounds a whole lot more. “Did I mention the tailwinds?”...Yes they also helped to enjoy the ride and would have slowed things down coming the other way from the east for sure.

Next stop... a long one to Mendoza via the Quebrada de las conchas, wine growing Cafayate, the prickly Argentinian desert and the infamous ‘Ruta 40’. Happy to finally be in Argentina!


As per usual the complete gallery of pics can be seen here in Picasa 

Hasta la proxima vez

Ali y Anna

Tags: altiplano, argentina, biking, chile



Happy Birthday Anna. Take care and travel safely.
Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  sheryn Nov 26, 2010 9:02 AM


After this experience are you taking it easy for a while?
I think you need a rest for atleast one Year.
good luck hope to see you next year

  Sophie & Rob Nov 26, 2010 10:53 PM


Wieieiehaaaa! Dat ziet er schitterend uit! Beautiful! Hier alles goed hoor. Braaf opleiding en werk en promotie aan het combineren. Nog steeds happily together met Died op de Gildstraat in ons stadsie. Op naar Sinterklaas, volgende week, my favourite party, dus komende week lekker gedichten schrijven en surprises bouwen. Love from Holland, x Bar en Died natuurlijk ook!

  Barbara Maat Nov 29, 2010 6:27 AM


Hi you two. Always a pleasure reading your story. We are in Broome for Xmas and dreaming of a trip somewhere. Ride safe. Hope to catch up someday in Oz.

  Johannes & Judy Dec 26, 2010 7:19 PM

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