One billboard outside nowhere, Atacama…

(Or for those who prefer song to film: ‘Riding through the desert on a bike with no name’)

Having spent the night in Tacna, Peru, the next day had me cycling through the desert for the first time. I only had 60kms to ride to cross the border into Chile where I was to stay in a seaside town. The desert already felt endless, (it actually stretches over 1000 kms) and the only things of interest on this stretch were the relatively frequent roadside memorials. They vary from simple crosses to more elaborate affairs, and seem to be a common feature around here. Not sure whether you just notice them more in the desert, but there did seem to be a lot of them.

Including one place that was a whole cemetry by the sea devoted to pets

The border was ok, albeit there was a lot of paperwork re the bike. My bicycle is now registered with the Chilean authorities as a ‘vehiculo’. No-one was really sure what to do, and they gave the impression they were making it up as they went along. Which was odd, given that I can’t be the first person to cross the border on a bicycle. But then again, the sign at the approach didn’t have an option for ‘bicicletas’, so maybe I’d just taken the wrong lane?!

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I took a route that first took me along the coast, so I cycled a few hundred kilometers with the Pacific coast on my right, and the mountains leading up to the desert on my left.

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Whilst the view was dramatic, it didn’t change much. The towns and villages were absolutely deserted. Some of them looked desperately poor, which was a surprise given that, of the countries I’ve visited so far, Chile was already clearly the most expensive.

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On one stretch I rode with a local cyclist, who told me that this beautiful memorial was to a young cyclist who was killed by a trucker using his phone. Whilst I do have a mirror, and watch out for big vehicles that look like they might pass too close, it was a reminder of the danger.

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There were significant stretches with neither hotels, nor shops, nor restaurants, so supplies had to be carried and the tent used. This particular spot was by a permanent vehicle check (looking for prohibited transport of fruits and plants). Whilst the surroundings were grim, it was at least shelter from the battering wind that rose up in the afternoons and evenings.

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An interesting site (that I visited from the town of Iquique, whilst I was staying there for a couple of days) was a place called Humberstone This ghost town was a former site for extraction and processing of ‘Saltpeter’ (potassium nitrate) which was sold throughout the world as fertiliser. Because of the location deep in the desert, it had to be a self-sufficient town, complete with schools, theatre, shops and recreational facilities. The decline of the industry began in the 1930’s, when artificial fertilisers began being produced, and by the 1960’s the site was abandoned. What remains is an incredibly well preserved town (due to the absence of rain), in the searing heat of the desert. It is now a UNESCO world heritage site. It was fascinating – and slightly eerie – to walk around.

In Iquique I loved the big market, where I spotted these very old-school arcade machines, and found Grandma taking a cheeky flutter.

From these first days in Chile, it was clear that the desert was going to prove a challenge, particularly in terms of carrying enough provisions. Whilst I love solo touring, the disadvantage against cycling with someone is that you can’t share the weight of things such as tent, cooking equipment, tools, camera, etc. So if you start having to load up with 15 litres extra of water, and several days food, it becomes much less enjoyable. For this reason there were three stretches in Chile where I chose to take a lift, twice by bus and once by car. This allowed me to enter the desert without worry, knowing that I didn’t ever need to take more than 3 days of supplies. The Atacama is one of the driest places on earth, with some weather stations never having recorded rain. The area where I started has an average rainfall of about 2mm per year.

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One part where I took the bus was in order to rise from sea level up to 3000 metres. Whilst the gradient would have been ok normally, doing it in the heat of the desert with the extra water would have been ridiculous. Taking the bus meant I still had a two day ride to San Pedro de Atacama, a bit of a tourist trap in the desert.

That still left a 1000m climb over 60kms in intense sun. I was glad of the T-shirt and arm protectors I’d bought with built in UV protection. In the whole of the 60kms, the only place with any shade was another roadside memorial. I’m sure the family wouldn’t have minded the fact that I used it to enjoy my peanut butter lunch.

My overnight camp was sheltered by the side of the road, but nicely out of sight. The night sky was simply stunning (I’m not carrying a tripod, so unfortunately no pics). The sunrise was also beautiful, and a perfect way to start the day.

San Pedro de Atacama itself was a weird place, albeit with a beautiful road leading up to it.

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It’s isolated in the desert, but full of tourists taking adventure tours to various beauty spots in the Atacama. I was happy to leave, using a local cab to get me to within 50 kms of the border with Argentina. According to the map, there were no places where I could get supplies on the way, and locals confirmed this. It transpired that there were a few places, and I’d have been fine, so it was a shame to miss much of the ride. The stretch I did cycle of the ‘Sico pass’ to the border with Chile was simply stunning, and I enjoyed every kilometre.

Once at the border, it was obvious that not many people used this route. I asked how many, on average, per day? The answer was ‘between 10 and 20 people’. The next sentence surprised me though, and at first I wasn’t sure I’d heard right. I was asked if I wanted to use their hostel. It turns out that when they built the border facility, they thought they’d add some rooms for cyclists, as they knew there was nothing else around. And it turns out the very comfortable accomodation was entirely free of charge for ‘viajeros’, or travellers. What a welcome to Argentina!

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I was also pleased when not long after I was joined by Stephano and Tracey, an Australian couple also cycling round South America. We had a great evening swapping tips and stories. The next day it was time for a quick picture and a goodbye to our new friend from the Argentinian police, and we cycled off to new adventures in another new country.

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Warm wishes to everyone,

Stuart

24 thoughts on “One billboard outside nowhere, Atacama…

  1. Stunning photos as ever. I did wonder how you got that amazing one of you cycling down the road, ocean to the right, mountains to the left, and then you mentioned you met up with a local cyclist. I assume he or she was the answer to that puzzle?! Will you be revisiting Chile, perhaps visiting Santiago to see John and Gertje?

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    1. Cheers Mike. Actually the answer to that one was a British motorcyclist, Ali, that I got chatting with. I was taking a scenery pic and he just stopped for a chat. It’s interesting between cyclists and motorcyclists. Most of the time there’s a friendly greeting, but there are a few motorcyclists. who just point blank ignore you. Quite funny really. Yes, I’m heading to Santiago directly after Mendoza (will try to cycle in a straight line!). I’m going to pop in and stay with J and G for a couple of days, and may end up being in the city over Christmas. Once I head South from there it won’t be long before the super interesting Patagonia stuff. Hugs from here, Stuart

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  2. Stuart,
    Excellent photos! Once again, your adventure is truly fascinating and as I sit in the cold of Chicago on this U.S. holiday (Thanksgiving), I am truly envious of the warm sunny climate you are enjoying! Stay safe.
    John R

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    1. Hi John, great to hear from you. Belated happy Thanksgiving! I don’t envy you the cold and wind of a Chicago winter, I must confess. This end I”ve just arrived in Mendoza, which seems to be enjoying great weather at the moment (sorry, rubbing it in). I’m going to have to take my time exploring this area and its wines of course, before heading to Santiago and then South. The next instalment should have some really great pics, as the ride from the desert down to lower altitudes in Argentina was breathtaking. Look after yourself over there, Stuart

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  3. Hi Stuart,

    Goodness me….I thought you might have given up and returned home by now! This last phase of your journey looks particularly desolate ( although beautiful). Do you get very lonely when you are so alone?

    Whats next after Argentina? will you be home for Xmas?

    Take care and keep safe.

    Sharon x

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    1. Hehe, hi Sharon. No, nothing to give up on – I’m loving the trip, even the tougher parts. It’s everything I’d hoped for, and more. And besides, having just reached Mendoza, I finally have great food and wine after a day in the saddle. This bit is going to have to be explored very slowly indeed…. I thought loneliness might be a challenge, but haven’t had any problems with it so far. When it does happen that I don’t talk to anyone for a while, I either enjoy the silence or listen to podcasts. Embracing middle age, I’m a big fan of Desert Island Discs particularly! But again, one of the reasons I’m able to chat with lots of people is the Spanish that the school in Medellin equipped me with. So so glad that I made the decision to invest in my course, and that the teachers were so good. I’m expecting to be in Santiago in Chile near Christmas, and then head South to Patagonia, which promises to be spectacular. Not expecting to be back until April really. If for any reason I stopped enjoying it however, I’d be on the next plane home. Not expecting that though. Big hug to you, and best to Sarah and Luke too (if they remember me!). Love, Stuart x

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    1. Cheers George, that’s good to know! We’re going to have to compare notes when I’m back. I suspect that, whilst much will have changed since your times in South America, an awful lot has also stayed the same! Much love to you both in Berlin, Stuart

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    1. Hi Gerda, if this is insanity, then it feels pretty good! I was talking about you to some friends that I’ve met on the road today, all in a good way of course! Hope you’re both ok over there, and the Berlin winter hasn’t got too bad so far. Sending you lots of love, Stuart x

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  4. Hi Stuart, that desert looks crazy! On a motorbike maybe, bicycle – I think youre crazy! I got back from a trip to the US a few weeks ago, and spent a few days driving through Yosemite towards Vegas. The pictures youve posted remind me of Death Valley and Mojabe National Parks – absolutely jaw droppingly beautiful. It looks like you’re still living the dream – and you deserve it. Stay safe. Matt

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    1. Hey Matt, good to hear from you! No, nothing crazy about it – it’s utterly beautiful in parts here. Glad you had a good time in the States. Lots of people get Death Valley and Atacama confused. As far as I can make out, Death Valley is hottest place on earth, and Atacama the driest. Either way, both pretty inhospitable – and beautiful, as you say. Yep, the dream is definitely being lived – loving every minute of it. I might be after a few tips from you re Spain, by the way. Beginning to wonder whether to take a flight back to Madrid from Buenos Aires when I finish, and then cycle back to Berlin from there. Hope job still going well. Say hi to Ian for me when you next speak please. You look after yourself over there, Stuart

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    1. Hi there you too. Yep, having an absolute blast. Loving every minute – even the tough bits. I’ve just got to Mendoza, so sure you can appreciate that this stretch needs to be taken very slowly indeed 😉 Hope you’re all well, Stuart

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    1. Cheers Damon. The next one contains some really spectacular landscapes – the descent from the desert altitude was incredibly beautiful. You’ll remember the couplings that I got on the bike btw. They’ve proved themselves worth their weight (literally as well as metaphorically). The Argentinian buses have very limited cargo space, and they (apparently) normally refuse bikes. I took a bus the other day (to cut out 1000 boring kms of the route) and was able to persuade them to take the bike because it was in two small parts. Very glad I got them, and should you spec a touring bike in future, I’d wholeheartedly recommend. Best, Stuart

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    1. Thanks Denise. Really good to hear that you’re enjoying it! And if you admire my tenacity, I admire you being able to put up with Simon’s punk trousers (he sent me a pic the other day). Boys and their toys, eh? 😉 Lots of love to you, Stuart x

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  5. Dear Stuart,
    What an amazing ride – first this beautiful trip alongside the Pacific coast and then just stones sand an sun. Having just been to London for a week to visit our “old home” it´s a relief to see the beauty of solitude with no one arguing on “leave” odr “remain”.
    Wherever you will be spending the coming days and weeks we would like to wish you a peaceful and relaxing timeChristams time and all the very best for the New Year.
    Take care and kind regards
    Jürgen and Illy

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    1. Hi Ihr Lieben! Yes, I confess to being very glad to be away from all the Brexit madness. I’m going to be in Santiago over Christmas; having a really long break with good friends here that I know from Pakistan days. Hope you have a wonderful time over the festive period too, and look forward to catching up again next year! Much love, Stuart

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