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Iquique, Chile to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

posted May 3, 2011, 10:24 AM by Paul Gareau   [ updated May 3, 2011, 3:09 PM ]
Hello from San Pedro! I spent a little while longer in Iquique after my last blog entry, for a total of two weeks off my bike. I was tired of having sore knees and wanted to give them a chance to rest once and for all. While I was there, nothing too interesting happened. Most days I would walk along the beach a little, but not enough to hurt my knees. The hostal was pretty nice and was one of those places where many travelers get "stuck" for much longer than they had planned. There were some other "long timers" such as myself, and others came and went, only staying for a day or two.

So finally I headed out, with the coastal town of Tocopilla being my next goal before heading back into the mountains, climbing from the coast to San Pedro. The wind, which had always been coming from the west during my time in Chile, was always coming from the south during my four days on the coast. Since I was heading south, it did a good job of keeping me cool and along with the constant rolling hills, made sure I wasn't riding more than 5mph. Is at least ONE easy day too much to ask? The coast between Iquique and Tocopilla is scenic at times, but since it's all desert, there isn't much to see other than the gray sand and water. The towns I passed weren't especially interesting, but the biggest surprise was the "desert", grass-less golf courses that I passed.

I camped at Chanabaya (Chanabayita?) the first night after a frustrating day of fighting the wind, and the second day was about the same. The highlight from the second day was when a trucker gestured for me to pull over and handed me a bag full of sandwiches, apples and a liter and a half of water! I camped that night a little beyond San Marcos in an area that was rocky enough to keep people from seeing me from the road. A seaweed "fisherman" came by and complained about the waves, which he said were unusually large and had been keeping him from working. He said the seaweed gets sold to Japan, but didn't know what they do with it. It's hard to believe that someone can spend their whole life doing a job only for the money, without even know what the result of their work is. Anyway, unlike the fisherman, I wasn't complaining about the waves. They were maybe the biggest and best I had seen since the Baja Peninsula, and that night before setting up camp I just relaxed and watched them roll in.

The next day I met a total of five other cyclists, but unfortunately they were all heading north. The first was a guy from Buenos Aires. We talked for a bit and then decided to head a little farther south, turning into a town on a road he had just passed (Chipana maybe?). He commented immediately on the wind - you don't realize how big a difference it makes until you're riding straight into it. After we got to the town and bought some food we met three other bike tourists, who were also from Buenos Aires. I stayed there a while, but finally headed out, wanting to make some more progress for the day. At "El Loa" there is a customs station where they had to search all my stuff. There was a very expensive restaurant there, and a snack stand where I got some water, chips and cookies, since I knew there would be very little between there and Tocopilla. I met a German guy there, who is retired and touring indefinitely. He was planning to camp in the area that night, but I wanted to push on, with the goal being to arrive in Tocopilla the next day. I found a campsite with about a billion noisy birds, and no privacy, so I waited until just before the sunset to pitch my tent.

I met the sixth cyclist the next day, a French guy who was also riding north. I passed a couple "vacation towns", the first was called "Quebrada Honda", which had no store. The next was Urcu, where I found a place to get some expensive cheese empenadas, and a little store for snacks. After finally getting to Tocopilla, I found the Hostal Marbella, where I spent two nights to get my legs ready for the nearly 14,000 feet of climbing through the desert to San Pedro.

The climb from the coast to San Pedro happens in what can be thought of as three "steps". The first is a steep 5000 foot climb to the town of Maria Elena, then a more or less easy day, then another 5000 foot climb to the city of Calama, then two more days with a total of 3500 feet of climbing, before descending into San Pedro. I gave myself goals on the climbs, such as climbing at least 45 minutes without a long stop (preferably non-stop), then a short break at 45 minutes if I hadn't climbed an additional 350 meters yet, then I would continue until I had hit that elevation, and then I would take a longer rest to sit and eat. 

The first 3000 meters were the steepest, then the climb became a bit easier and I finally had a tailwind to help me along. There was some construction happening at about 3000 meters and the workers there gave me some water and soup. I definitely haven't minded getting all this free food! Close to the first "peak" there is a big water tank that provides water to Tocopilla. The guard gave me water, which meant I could camp before getting to Maria Elena. Once I could see the town in the distance, I found a sheltered spot and set up camp there. 

Maria Elena is a sodium nitrate mining town, and has a very interesting layout (see here). It was off route, but passing through it was easier than carrying all the food and water I would have needed from Tocopilla. I bought food for two more days there, and left with about 9 liters of water, which I think is roughly about 18 pounds. The weight made a big difference and I didn't make it as far as I expected towards Calama, but I arrived the next day and camped at a campground near the stadium in town. The guy said the price was $10 to camp, which is crazy, and I talked him down to $6 (still too much). I would have camped outside of town but it was very windy, sandy and there was nowhere that I wouldn't have been visible. I left Calama with another 18ish pounds of water, and rode very slowly to about km 40 where I found a decent place to camp. After only 20 km more of climbing the next day, I was at the top, with a downhill almost all the way to San Pedro. 

There was one more climb just after the turnoff to the "Death Valley" and that road appeared downhill, so even though it was slightly longer, I decided I had time to ride through it. At the guard station I could see a hill climbing ahead and around a corner, so I asked him how big it was. He said 800 meters, which is a huge climb that I couldn't have finished before dark, so I turned around, pretty upset that I had wasted my time leaving the main road to go there. From the access road, I stopped and looked back at the hills around the valley and thought that MAYBE the tallest of them was 800 meters, and that MAYBE(???) he meant the hill was 800 meters LONG instead of HIGH. So, I rode back to the entrance again to get some clarification, and sure enough, it was 800 meters LONG and afterwards it levels off before descending to San Pedro. What a ridiculous misunderstanding. I guess that since I had been measuring my progress in meters gained since leaving the coast, I was probably just primed to interpret it that way.

The death valley was a pretty beautiful place, and I was there at a good time since the sun was low in the sky and the long shadows showed the texture of the landscape. Between 4:30 and 5PM, all the tourist buses started rolling in to see the valley at sunset, so I guess I'd recommend cycling through as late as possible, but before all the bus traffic starts.

So, now I'm in San Pedro with yet another holdup. If I had known that I was going to be in Iquique for so long, I would have had my latest care package sent there, but since I didn't, I asked my mom to send it here instead. Unfortunately it hasn't arrived yet and I don't know when it will be here. Probably, like in Ecuador, it's been hung up in customs and will be delayed by up to a week. Unfortunately there's no way of knowing if it's in customs, or lost, or how long I should stick around. It's kind of frustrating especially after having just taken an unplanned two weeks off. I spent my first two nights here camping at a place that charges 4000 pesos ($8!! per night) before I found a nice new hostel that charges 5000/$10 per night. Moving from a campground with practically no services to a place like this is a no-brainer, and I've also met some other cyclists who I hiked to some ruins with yesterday. They're headed in roughly the direction I am, but since I don't know when I'll get my mail, I don't know if we'll be able to head out together.

With these new delays I had to revise my route once again. I'll be heading to Argentina next still, but I haven't decided which pass to take, then down possibly as far as San Fernando del valle de Catamarca, then up through Santiago del Estero, San Miguel de Tucuman, Salta, Sal Salvador de Jujuy, then back to Bolivia: Uyuni, Potosi, Sucre, back to Argentina (no more Paraguay) to near Corrientes, where I'll take a bus to Iguazu falls and back (no sense in riding 100s of miles just to see a waterfall), then to Santa Fe, where I might take a bus to Buenos Aires and back, then Cordoba, Mendoza and south. There's a chance that I'll do a side trip by bus to Santiago and Valparaiso, and maybe even Easter Island if I can get a good price. A map might make this easier to picture, so here it is:

Like the other maps I've posted, this one doesn't show the route all the way to Ushuaia, but it's still my plan to end my trip there.