Pondering over my dilemma the options were somewhat limited and the only viable outcome was head east back into Argentina. This had a triple bonus: firstly I’d get to see the Chilean village 100 kilometres away of San Pedro Atacama,...a place that many back-packers head for due to its surrounding sights, secondly I would then pass through the Argentine village of Purmurmarca - noted on my ‘places to visit’ list I’d compiled before starting the tour. Thirdly, I would then head to the city of Porto Iguazo to see Iguazo Falls - the worlds largest waterfall system, this is at the Argentine/Brazil/Paraguay border 800 kilometres east so would certainly be a detour!! I would then enter Bolivia via it’s eastern border by firstly going through Paraguay - a country I’d actually brought a map of ‘just in case’!Calama sits at 2307 metres, out of the city I was soon back in the desert and as the route continually climbed I pass through a large wind-farm that (luckily for me) was fuelled by a nice cross-tail wind aiding me along nicely.
Coincidentally enough I would actually be meeting Nicky and Jules today as they were heading out of San Pedro to Calama. At just over halfway along I could make out two cyclists, unfortunately not the best place for a road-rendezvous as it gave no shade. Struggling into my cross-tail wind we gave a brief exchange of ‘what’s ahead’ then ten minutes later we bid farewell, wondering where we’d next meet!Dead-weight on a bicycle is not good, from the very start having hardly used my camera stand decide to make use of it for a change. Many-a cyclist take the 'selfie' riding shot, so for the record here's mine.
Later after a steep climb I break for lunch in a bus-stop - hard boiled eggs had become the standard, mashed up with some mayonnaise into a bread-roll along with a tomato they’re really convenient.Having descended down from the mountain pass, San Pedro was now only twelve kilometres away. Cycling along in the afternoon's blazing heat with music playing all of a sudden I'm wacked on the arm/shoulder along with the sound of breaking glass as a small bus passes by!! It happened within the blink-of-an-eye and initially I assume I've been hit but wonder why I'm still nicely rolling along, but then all of a sudden BAM!! A strong pain cuts in around my shoulder/arm area and I'm jumping off my bike sitting on the tarmac "ow!, ow!, ow!" the bus now up-ahead pulling onto the narrow hard shoulder. With the road being not-so-wide he'd kept right to give a passing car sufficient room but obviously overlooked how wide his extended side-mirror was..now bent inwards and the mirror/glass scattered on the road! My shoulder was now throbbing like i'd been punched by Tyson and was now way I could cycle. The mirror had even clipped my flag's flagpole and broke it, I was not happy and pointing to my flag hilighting "what part of it couldn't you bloody see!!"..the flag itself being there to indicate that I was there! Nevertheless, no blood or broken bones and with only one customer on the bus (presumably the only reason he stopped!) we load my bike and bags into the bus. Eight kilometres later insult gets added to injury as we pass some awesome scenery, the absolute best section of the day and I'm in a bloody bus! Dropped off in the small dusty town I could see this was certainly touristy...something I'd not seen for almost 2000 kilometres wey back in Mendoza!
It's said the high quantities of quartz and copper in the region gives its people positive energy and good vibes of northern Chile's number-one tourist location. The original town was made from Adobe, the buildings and walls made from clay/straw bricks, the picture-postcard church being a fine example of this;Dried Cactus is used in the construction of the roof beams....and even used to make tables, chairs and other furniture.
In the central plaza I see another touring cyclist so wander over for a chat. Phil was from Canada and riding south to Ushuaia - cycling to Argentina had been his dream since a young lad and now he was just a few hundred kilometres from its border! Letting off steam I tell him of my afternoon's 'bus adventure!' to which we both have a chuckle! Having ridden here via Bolivia Phil was now unsure of what route to take into Argentina, the sealed road of rippio route. Being just as scenic as the dirt road I was sticking to the sealed road, Phil's soon convinced of it's benefits and we join forces en-route to Argentina. Dark shorts and loud T-shirts seemed to be the colour-code.
Phil was already booked in at a hostel but with no free beds I pitch at campsite. For the first few days we'd have nothing in the way of shops so we decide to take the next day off and stock up, that also gave me chance to take an early morning ride back up to the awesome scenery I'd passed by on the bus, managing to get some photos. I half expected to see Mars Rover crawl past - a dramatic landscape that includes desert, salt flats, geysers and hot-springs, unusual rock formations within the brown craggy terrain, salty patches here-n-there.
The Bolivian south-west Altiplano is almost a 'standard' route for cyclists riding through South America, an area where the Andes are the widest, in fact the most extensive area of high plateau outside of Tibet so either going into or coming from there brings one into Chile - on this road - whereby San Pedro is the closest town to re-stock, unfortunately at ~ 2000 metres lower in altitude from the Bolivian entry-exit border. This was in fact my initially planned route, via Argentina, but likewise would have still had to visited San Pedro for supplies before entering Bolivia, that was, before I decided to enter from the western border...and that was before the rainy season turned up forcing yet another change that I was now riding!
Also suffering with rear-wheel problems - whilst on lunch - Phil flipped his bike for a broken spoke-change, both of us praying our wheels would at least last until the big city of Salta, mine had been okay since before staring the Atacama section - over 1000 kilometres - but was always niggling away at me in the back of my mind.
By evening we'd only rode 35 kilometres, Thirty bloody five! Camping aside the road clouds started drawing in, making a considerable drop in temperature so after dinner we soon jump into our tents!
From opposite our camp, to the left is Mount Juriques, a Stratovolcano built up by many layers (Strata) of hardened lava, tephra, pumice and volcanic ash, its height is a whopping 5704 metres.
The following day the climb was relentless, up, up and up. Now at over 4000 metres I was really struggling for oxygen, it was sooo difficult, stopping every few hundred metres for a breather. In the excitement of Phil's initial descent from here he'd understandably forgotten just how far we still had until the pass so with occasional trucks crawling pass I introduce him to truck-surfing! As he grabs hold of the first truck I'd forgot to tell him to initially lean away from it and he ends up kissing the tarmac! His second attempt proved successful and he's soon grinning like a Cheshire cat as we're both pulled up the remaining kilometres on separate trucks, the drivers only too glad to be of help! Eventually the border post comes into view, we were at the top...of this part at least!
Albeit actually a little bit of climbing soon after my mid-morning we came to a welcomed sign!
Through the course of the day the scenery was sparse open barren land, watery at times then becoming dry once again, but not so for the weather!
Later in the afternoon again we started to climb, now the thin drizzly rain becoming sleet, colder, then further up snow! On the pass - that was surprisingly even higher than we'd previously done - we had a fierce wind blowing the snow horizontally in our faces, a true mountain-top blizzard. Just over the pass four french cyclists going the opposite way asked us how longer to the pass, and if there were any shelter ahead....if only!!
To be honest, I was quite concerned with the situation, 4000 + metres on a mountain, cold as hell and no shelter. Phil's bike had no mudguards so was getting sprayed from his wheels and advised me to descend at my own [faster] pace, off and away I zipped down. On a hairpin (switchback) the road changed directions so luckily gave us a tailwind, as I descend the road started straightening out, zipping along over slushy water I was cautious to any ice, yet my body's cold temperature just said go! Up ahead I could see some sort of parking/ observation area afront a large flamingo occupied lagoon. Now lower down, parts of the road was actually dry, the final few kilometres and I was at there, considering any other options -none! - it seemed as good-a-place to stop for the night, the high sided curved wall providing wind shelter. Thankfully, ten minutes later Phil comes into view and soon pulls into our refuge.
Out of the worst we were still cold and Phil - only with half-finger mittens - almost had frost-bite, sucking his fingers to warm them I advise we best set camp, soon in our tents we start to warm up nicely, feeling quite jubilant about it..us: 1 - mountain: 0! My socks were soaked to the bone but wrung out, back on in the morning they'd soon warm up! The next day we'd reach Jama (pronounced as 'hama') but was concerned by how a border usually sits at the peak within a mountain range and having already gone rather high on the previous (snow) pass as to how high the border pass would actually be, still, that's a battle for the next day and with dinner cooked and Phil replacing yet another spoke of two we're zipped up for the night, snug-as-a bug-in-a-rug.
The following day the clouds started to break and with time on our hands got some good road-shots of one another.
A few hours in and the drizzle started again but to our surprise after only a little meandering up and down of just tens of metres we see the Argentine border come into view...there was no big pass after all!!!
Being Canadian meant Phil needed a visa but at the immigration post he's told they're not issued at the border and would need to head back to San Pedro! A real problem! Maybe he could coach back, albeit a return trip of two days, likewise if he thumbed a passing truck. Asking around in a neighbouring immigration office we meet the chap who deals with the truckers immigration papers. He tells us he can issue a visa, [but] the printer he needs to use is v-e-r-y expensive to run. Excellent!! we most certainly understood what he was indirectly saying and certainly gave him a 10/10 for his covert way of asking for a bribe. Unfortunately only accepting credit cards meant a problem as both of Phil's hard been stolen a while back and subsequently been forwarded money each need using the Money Gram service. So here in a time of dire straits I gladly offer the use of my card and several minutes later - after some additional 'closed door' Chilean to Argentinean money exchange business - his passport has one less blank page! They say money talks, but one certainly has to talk to the right person!
Back to the passport stamping counter the immigration officer gladly stamps Phil out of Chile, whilst his neighbour stamps him in to Argentina!!
Having only rode 53 kilometres, with the weather looking set for the day we decide to stay put in Jama, celebrating the arrival in the penultimate country of Phil's tour we book in at the finest of accommodation we can find in the village.
Next time, BANG goes the spoke!
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