Cycling the Atacama: Copiapo to Calama
After five nights in the tent and six days cycling through the Atacama Desert we made it from Copiapo to Antofagasta in time to celebrate my 30th birthday.
We’d been looking forward to this stretch of the trip, through the driest desert on Earth, since we sat at our kitchen table back in Peckham planning our route. From Copiapo we would head north through the desert and its stunning landscapes and starry skies towards Antofagasta on the Pacific coast. This was the first stretch of our time in Chile’s desert and we were both excited and prepared for some tough cycling.
Our first day surprised us though. We had planned to pedal 75km to Caldera on the coast, but with the gradient in our favour and a strong tailwind we managed a wapping 170km to Chanaral. It was a fabulous ride through towering sand dunes and then up and down the rocky spurs that stretch out into the ocean. We were incredibly glad to be travelling north as we passed cyclists heading the other way into the wind, including an expedition from the Russian Geographical Society.
In Chanaral we stocked up on supplies, as it would be 400km before we reached the next town on Ruta 5, Antofagasta. Loaded down with biscuits, pasta and cake we took a detour through the beautiful Pan de Azucar National Park. The scenery was magnificient and we cycled along a dirt road along the edge of the ocean, over ancient lava flows and past flocks of pelicans stalking the local fishermen.
We were tempted to camp in the park’s campsites , but we were only 25km into the day so pushed on. We had a lovely cycle out along the old river bed, which trundles upwards and we met the main road at 2200ft above sea level without feeling the climb at all.
It took another hour of climbing, after stopping at Los Bombas posada for a cold drink, to get towards the top of our first pass. There we took a small mining road over a hill to find a stunning campsite for the night, with magnificent views of the valley beneath and a snowy volcanic cone in the distance.
The next day we were again helped along by a tailwind, especially welcome as we spent the afternoon climbing in a burning sun. We were glad to stop for lunch at a posada at the Taltal turnoff, where we stood out from the usual clientele who were amused by our mode of transport. One kind truck driver gave us a pack of biscuits for our journey, and along the route others followed suit, stopping to hand out oranges or to offer us, declined, lifts.
We approached the top of the valley about 5pm and were keen to find somewhere to camp before the final climb to the top. However, all the hidden spots along the road were full of rubbish and had been used as toilets by passing motorist, so we were forced to push on to the top. Fortunately we found a good spot soon after, about 1km off the road behind piles of rocks, which it seemed was a popular cyclists campsite, as we spotted bike tyre marks in the dirt.
The next day was another full uphill and our poor bottoms were aching like crazy, our Brooks saddles still not having softened up as much as hoped. Making use of all posadas we passed we stopped at Aqua Verde just 14km along, and enjoyed being sat in the middle of nowhere on a Sunday morning at 9am,eating ice cream and watching the Lighthouse Family on TV. A few hours later we had lunch and stocked up on water in Posasa San Fransisco, our last opportunity do so for 105km.
That afternoon we met our first English-speaking cyclist since Brazil and enjoyed swapping information about the routes we had just travelled. Pier, from the Netherlands, was cyling from Arica to Santiago, and it was his 30th birthday that day. It was a shame we couldn’t stop to camp together that night, but water concerns meant that we both had to push on. A little later we made it to the highest point on the route, 7000ft, a good moment. Although at such a height and on a plateau we were exposed to the wind and had trouble pegging our tent down, in the end resorting to boulders to hold it.
From the top we had 160km down to Antofagasta and were anticipating a few days of easy riding. We started in good spirits and found time to play about with the video camera, confident of making progress. That was until about 11am, when the wind suddenly changed direction and we found ourselves battling into downhill.
To make matters worse the first posada after 105km was closed, and short on water we had no choice but to make another 35km that day to restock. This saw us cycling downhill at 5km per hour, and at times pushing the bikes the wind was so strong. It was a massive relief to finally reach the truck stock where we downed litres of cold water and Pepsi.
We had hoped to camp behind the building, but the wild wind and the wild dogs on the lookout for scraps meant that wasn’t a possibility. Instead we found a spot about 1km down the valley behind a rock mound where we were hidden from the road, but unfortunately still in a position to be battered by the wind which made for a bad night’s sleep in the tent.
So we were two exhausted cyclists the next morning on the last leg to Antofagasta. Mercifully the wind had turned and we sped down towards the coast, averaging 30km per hour. It was pure delight to see so much water, plants and life down on the coast and our first shower was absolute bliss.
Antofagasta is a pretty, bright, lively city and we enjoyed several days there to recover from our time in the desert, but more specifically to mark my 30th birthday. It is definitely one I won’t forget.
Now though, we’re back in the desert, in the oasis town of Calama, 200km north-east of Antofagasta. The town is surprisingly large and serves the many mines that line the road all the way from the coast. It is one of the driest cities in the world, with an average rainfall of just 5mm. For that reason I’m writing this in the shade of our room, out of the burning sun.
There won’t be escaping if for long though. Next we head towards the border with Bolivia and some riding in the wilderness across the Salar de Uyuni and onto La Paz. Time to pack more long terms supplies of food.
(For anybody planning to ride the Atacama Desert we recommend checking out the crazy guy on a bike website, which has a list of all posadas on the route.)