Breathless in Chile: Cycling Calama to Ollague
It took us a whopping four and a half days to cover 200km from Calama to Ollague, on the Bolivian border. We were slowed by the supplies we were carrying, the poor roads, the effects of climbing to 13,500ft and Paddy’s desire for an adventure.
As we left Calamaour bikes were the heaviest they’d ever been, loaded up with seven days of food and enough water to get us the long distances from one refuelling point to another.
Our first waterstop was in Chui Chui, just 35km outside of Calama, but in the heat our supplies were already low. We were amazed by this little town’s irrigated vegetable patches, as all around was desert, but it is served by a little river, which enables life to survive there.
We headed through a long, wide valley with the wind blowing us uphill. The help was gratefully received, as I was struggling with ‘empty’ legs.
That night we camped in an ancient riverbed whose deep sandy bottom made for a comfortable night’s sleep. The views were spectacular, and we sat eating our tomato sauce and pasta supper counting the volcanoes around us.
We awoke to a tough day, when the altitude really took hold. Having managed to stock up on water at Estacion San Pedro, there was less pressure to cover the distance to the next supply, which was fortunate as we were both exhausted. A small volcano that looked just around the corner taunted us all day, but proved unreachable. We managed just 30km in total and set up camp early.
We were suffering with headaches, nausea and upset stomachs, were breathless and had no energy. Finding a protected spot behind an ancient lava flow we collapsed on the tarp. Even the smallest of movements had us sitting down to recover.
So we were surprised, waking up the next day, to feel relatively normal. For the first time since Calama I had energy in my legs, which was lucky as we had a big climb of 500m up to the Paso FronterizoAscotan at 3965m.
As we free-wheeled down the other side of the pass, we had stunning views of Cerro Araral, an old volcano that had erupted sideways, and which towered above the sparkling white Salar de Ascotan. It made the hard work of the last few days worth it.
We pedalled down onto the salt plain before setting up camp in a disused quarry for the night. There we spent a bitterly cold evening in the tent, when the temperature dropped to minus seven.
The next day we started in the cold, cycling along ever-changing scenery on the salt plain: from flat and featureless, to small, crystal-clear lakes and mini-mountains of salt. We spotted out first vicuna (lama-like animal) and pink flamingos bathing in the pools of waters on the salt plain, and we finished the morning with a steep climb up a rocky road and a lunch of chocolate spread sandwiches, overlooking the Salar de Carcote.
It was at this point that Paddy declared that he felt “like having an adventure”. By which he meant that instead of cycling 31km along the road to Ollague that bordered the salt plain, he wanted to follow the railway line that headed straight across instead.
He was insistent that the road next to the railway would run all the way across and that at the end of the salt plain there would be a road to connect us back to the main road. Not wanting to be a spoilsport, I agreed to the plan.
Of course the road didn’t run all the way across. About half way in it became wet and then thick sand, which made it impossible to ride or push. The solution? To ride along the railway tracks of course. Only, not when the train is coming, we had to wait back on the salt plain then.
Obviously the railway line isn’t made for cycling on. There was a puncture, lots of bumping along, and a fair few kilometres of walking. It took us a whole afternoon to cross the salt lake and we were still 15km from town, so we spent the night camped in the ruins of an old railway storage house.
The fun continued in the morning when thick sand saw us back pushing along the railway. Fortunately the line isn’t that busy. We disembarked at the ghost-town of Buena Ventura and were able to find our way back to the beautifully smooth main road. No words were said.
Instead it was heads down and a fast few kilometres into Ollague where we treated ourselves to a feast of eggs and bread. Sorely tempted to spend the night there, we decided it really was time we made it to Bolivia, so headed towards the Chilean customs for our exit stamp.
We have enjoyed some fantastic cycling in Chile. Challenging at times, yet the scenery has been incomparable and the whole experience rewarding. We probably should have remembered that before we went looking for extra adventure. Cycling in Chile is adventure enough alone.