Chile: Cactuses, desert and a long way up

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When I arrived in Los Andes I had no idea where to stay. After having some tough days I was mentally ready for a break of few days, but as usually things worked out perfectly for me.

While I was searching for a free open WiFi connection, to check if I got an answer from a Warmshowers hosts I had contacted a few days earlier, I bumped into a bicycle shop. I had to buy a new helmet, as my one disappeared on a campground a few weeks ago. One of the guys in the shops, Jaime, was really interested in my trip and because it was close to siesta time he immediately invited me for lunch in a cheap nearby restaurant. In the meanwhile I found out that I could stay with the Warmshowers host in San Felipe, which was just 15km away. Unfortunately the host had to work till eight. Jaime though offered me to stay at his place for couple of hours and even offer me to use his shower ­– the first one in ten days. Just amazing this uncomplicated hospitality.

Christian was another great host and even organized a big birthday cake for me. My first present though I got from the nature – just after midnight, I was lying in my bed and almost asleep when my bed started shook for a few seconds. It took me a while to realize what it was. After a look in the internet I found out it was a 5.3 Magnitude earthquake, too weak to cause any damage. I’m in one of the most seismic active regions of the world, as the Nazca Plate moves under the South American Plate and over the next weeks I experienced a few more little ones. One time I was talking to some locals about a potential place to camp when suddenly the earth shook. While I of course showed a surprised reaction the locals just ignored it. It’s just normal here and those small tremors don’t do any damage. According to an earthquake recording page in the internet, there were more than 1500 within the last year.blogchile (1 von 62)blogchile (3 von 62) blogchile (4 von 62) blogchile (5 von 62)

After leaving San Felipe I had the choice of either taking the Ruta 5 also known as Panamerican Highway, which is Chile’s longest Highway and connects the north with the south or taking small back country roads. I chose the last option, although it would be harder and much slower. The Landscape was different again from what I had in Argentina. It was even dryer, but the main difference was the vegetation. Suddenly and the first time in my life I was surrounded by cactuses. It felt like being in the Wild West.  Although I loved it I wasn’t motivated to ride for some reasons and on some days I was more sitting in the nature reading a book than sitting on the saddle of my bike. But why not, I have no reason to rush.

It was pretty hilly and I came along a series of tunnels. Some of them were even quite long – up to 1,5km. But scary thing was they had no lights and just one lane. Even with all my lights on it was still black and while rushing through I hoped that no car would come from the other direction. Luckily those roads weren’t busy at all.

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After a couple of days I made it to Coquimbo, the biggest city I’ve been to for a while and it was quite shock to ride through the heavy traffic. The city itself was rather boring and not beautiful at all, but again I had a great Warmshowers experience. This time my hosts were a shared house of students, which reminded me of home. I could have stayed there probably for much longer, but I was also keen for the next challenge.

Somehow I had to get back to Argentina, which sounds easy, as the border is never far away in Chile, but then there are the Andes in between, which makes it difficult. I chose to take the Paso de San Francisco. First though I had to get further up north to the city Copiapo from where the pass starts. Unfortunately this time there was no real alternative as to take the Ruta 5. It’s a two lane motorway and bicycles aren’t actually allowed, but nobody seems to be interested in it. In fact it was one of the safest roads I cycled on in South America, due to a wide shoulder. For about 30 or even more kilometers I even had two complete lanes for me. As this part wasn’t open yet for cars and all the traffic had to go over two lanes. For me on a bicycle it was perfect, I could bypass the barriers and enjoy the fresh tarmac without the hustle of overtaking cars and trucks. As I got further north I got into the southern parts of the Atacama. The vegetation disappeared – nearly completely – and I was just surrounded by lots of gravel.

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Under the Highway

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On the motorway

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Copiapo is the last city and the last place before it goes up the pass and the next civilization is 450 km further, the little town of Fiambala in Argentina on the other side of the Andes. So I had to stock up with food for a week and plenty of water. My bike wasn’t that heavy for quite a while and took me a while to get used to that. It was a weird feeling passing a sign saying the next gas station 450km away. I was definitely excited about the next days, especially how I would deal with the high altitude. The first day weren’t really hard though. It was not steep at all, only a gentle incline and a tailwind made even easier. The remoteness was different to the previous days on the busy highway. There were only a few cars and basically all belonged to some construction workers or miners, one car stopped to supply me with a bag full of grapes – awesome. So I made my way up a valley to 2000m and the following day onto 3300. There I ran – as planned – out of water, but I read before that I should get water from a mine. When I saw the buildings I was relieved, but as I got close I realized that they were all abandoned. Shit – I thought. Was the information from internet really that old? Without another choice I kept going, still optimistic that my water problem will get solved somehow. And it did. Two kilometers later I saw another complex of buildings, new and definitely not abandoned. At the entrance the security guys were more than happy to refill my bottles, but they were also a bit worried to let me keep going. The sky was cloudy and it looked definitely like rain – or snow? Additionally the wind got stronger and stronger. I got the kind offer to camp in the windbreak of the security building. My plan was originally to get a few kilometers further.  I decided to consider their offer while having a little break, but before I could make up my mind I got another even better offer, which I definitely couldn’t deny. The security officer had called his boss and organized for me to stay at the mining camp. A few minutes later I rolled my bike into a room with a comfy bed and my own shower. It was like a hotel room. Before I was actually pretty keen to spend my nights in the wilderness in my tent, but I couldn’t say no to this comfort as well. They even allowed me to eat in the canteen and it was quite interesting to see how the miners live as well.

After a big breakfast I headed on. The first highpoint at 4300m was ahead of me and for first time I could feel the altitude. My body was just not yet used to the low oxygen and I was breathing hard while riding up the switchbacks. Luckily I only got some headaches and not more. It was actually the steepest and hardest part of the pass. From 4300 it went down to the Salar de Maricunga on 3800, where the Chilean Immigration was. Even though it was still early I decided to stop und give my body a chance to catch up with altitude. The headaches disappeared and on the next morning I felt ready to ascend further. Now the sky was for the first time clear and deep blue. The landscape was just breathtaking and hard to describe.  I felt like being in another world up there. Surrounded by some of the highest mountains of the Andes I cycled up to 4300, where I stopped again for the night beneath the three 6000m summits of Cerro Tres Cruces.

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The next morning I woke up before sunset. It was damn cold, so cold that my water bottles were frozen. A breakfast and a tea warmed me up, but it took still forever till the sun got over the mountain range. After a slow ascent to 4600m I went down again to 4300m at Laguna Verde. At the first view of the lake I couldn’t believe the color is real. So different to the brown and red of the mountains. At the shore of Laguna Verde is a refugio, whch is just a little hut with two rooms. When I arrived there I was welcomed by Eduardo, a Chilean Mountaineer Guide. He arrived there the day before witch his German client Andre. They were staying there for a few days to acclimatize as preparation to climb the Ojos de Salados, which is at 6893m the highest active Volcano in the world and the second highest mountain in South America. To my advantage they were happy to share some food and I enjoyed having some company after some rather lonely days before.

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Cerro Tres Cruces – all three peaks are over 6000m

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around 16 liter water I was carrying at one stage

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Ojos de Salados 6893m – highest active volcano in the world and second highest mountain in South America

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Laguna Verde

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The refugio at Laguna Verdeblogchile (44 von 62)
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That are actually hot pots

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After two nights on over 4300m I was used to the altitude and so I started on the next day for the last climb. And three hours later I reached the top of the Paso de San Francisco on 4730m. I was relieved that everything went well, it was such a great feeling to have made it and to know that it would go downhill now for more than 150km. Also with a view on the next months, when I will ride on the Altiplano for several weeks in high altitude, it was a good test. blogchile (54 von 62)

Finally on the top

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The way down went quickly and I was so keen get back to civilization, especially for a supermarket and something different to eat. Unfortunately it was Sunday and everything was closed, so had to wait another day. From Fiambala the last section of Argentina starts for me before it goes up again on to the Altiplano. I’m excited. blogchile (56 von 62)blogchile (59 von 62) blogchile (58 von 62)

In the refugio on the way down

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