Friday, December 18, 2015

Over the Andes and Through the Hills to Argentina We Go: Paso Sico,December 5-10

San Pedro de Atacama-Toconao-Socaire-Mina El Laco-Paso Sico

We flew back into Chile rested, somewhat fatter than when we left, and ready to resume our travels where we left off. Back in San Pedro de Atacama, we found our way to Carlos' house to grab our bikes, and, although he wasn't currently hosting cyclists, he graciously invited us in. After not having to pay the expected $160 reciprocity fee upon entry into Chile, and meeting some great people at the airport, Carlos´ invitation was the cherry on top of our two-week vacation from the bikes. Many, many thanks to Andie and Michel for making it possible!

When we arrived in San Pedro from Bolivia a few weeks before, the heat was unbearable. At under 10,000 feet, it was the lowest we had been in months. Now, due to two weeks at sea level, we had to acclimate again, and the heat was still unbearable. We took a day to organize our things and drink all the water in San Pedro, then set off eagerly for the mountains, Carlos energetically waving goodbye.

Carlos with one of his many cats

Few cyclists choose to traverse northern Chile. It's hot, dry, and flat, Northern Argentina, unfortunately, isn't much better. Our plan, echoing that of many before us, was to criss-cross the Andes, from Chile to Argentina and back, as many times as possible, starting with Paso Sico. We took it slow at first, easing our feet back onto the pedals and our butts into the well-worn contours of our saddles. The Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on earth, was no place to realize that you weren't quite as physically able as you thought. We sipped water in the shifting parallelograms of road sign shadows, searching for any sort of refuge from the scorching sun. No life was visible in many areas, only a tiny shrub here and there stunted by the wind and lack of water. As the sun slipped below the horizon each evening, we and the earth breathed a collective sigh of relief. Now we rest. To do it all again tomorrow.

Ahhh, sweet relief
Riding south out of San Pedro: hot and flat through the Atacama Desert
Officially out of the tropics, woo hoo!
Even in the desert, life flowers and blooms
We rode through two sun-drenched pueblos, Toconao and Socaire, before our road turned west and we really started climbing. Before long the faraway peaks seemed close enough to touch, their mineral-rich, multicolored slopes gleaming in the bright sunshine, mines bent on extracting those minerals nearby. We rode by expansive salt flats, by brightly colored lagoons with even brighter flamingos, by foxes, guanacos, and all kinds of birds. The scenery was similar to the popular Lagunas route on Bolivia, only a lot less trafficked and with better road quality. What's not to like?!

Unblemished pavement sped things up for the first bit
Up in elevation we meet our old friends, the lupines
Camping under some lofty peaks near the Salar de Aguas Calientes. Windbreak, check.
Brilliant! Pastel! Emerald! Shimmering! Aaah, too bright!

No sunset would be complete in this area without some flamingos around to keep us company

Ever-changing scenery
Really colorful

At the El Laco Mine. Sometimes the colors get to be too much, and you just have to monochrome it all.

This little guy came out to play while we were hanging out at the mine

Looking back on the litte outpost of El Laco. Paradise, in my eyes. I´m not sure the super-bored caretakers agree.

Superb sunrise scenery

We were lucky enough to share our time on Paso Sico with an amiable Spanish cyclist named Juan. We were able to converse easily in Spanish, but Juan, with dogged determination, decided he was going to use us to practice what English he knew. The years of language lessons never did stick, he said, so he would insert Spanish words left and right without so much as an umm or an er. Spanglish, he said, is what he speaks, and he does it proficiently.

Descending the desolate moonscape on the east side of Abra Sico, we entered into Argentina. Our original goal, to cycle from Alaska to Argentina, was complete! A few oversized road signs marked the border, their welcoming phrases morphed into nonsensical segments by the strong wind, like "Bien os a Chi ". Other than the signs, the barren plateau of dwarfed plants and sand was rather uninspiring, and we proceeded to the joint immigration building 12 kilometers into Argentina. As usual with border bureaucracies, we didn't have the paperwork we should have been given when we entered but were through without too much issue.

Looking out on Paso Sico. On the other side, Argentina!

Woohoo, Argentina! Undoubtedly the most desolate border we have ever crossed

Route notes:
Passes to Argentina: There are four options: Jama, Sico, Socompa, and Huaytiquina (in order of remoteness). Jama is the main thoroughfare, Sico is traveled but probably more often by bicycles than cars, Socompa is super remote, and Huaytiquina, just north of Sico, has only been cycled once that I know of, probably due to the presence of land mines. Deciding between Sico and Socompa, we heard that Sico would be more interesting and found that it would also put us in position to climb Queva (see the next blog post). We don't regret the decision, as it was sufficiently remote and very beautiful. Info on Jama, Sico, and Socompa can be found here. If you're interested in riding Huaytiquina, talk to Guilherme at BBikes in San Pedro; I believe he has done it. There are immigration offices for both countries at Jama and Sico; for the other two, check with immigration officials before setting off.

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