From one Desert to Another. Crossing the Salar de Uyuni and The Atacama.

I’ve made it to Santiago after crossing the World’s driest desert, The Atacama. I’m currently in the huge home of two awesome Canadian embassy workers and avid cyclists, Dave and Helene, resting up before I start the journey south, towards my final destination. It will take roughly 7 days to get to the last city before Patagonia, Puerto Montt and from there just the total, majestic wilderness of Patagonia and The Carreterra Austral lies ahead, with a few small towns and villages dotted along the way.

photo 2
Crossing over the border

I had one day of riding left to get to Bolivia after completing the 392 km journey in Peru to join the efforts of Wigston College’s 24 hour cycling challenge. For the next week or so, I was on the Bolivian/ Peruvian plateau, cruising at a minimum height of 3,600 metres. The journey to the border began with one last Peruvian breakfast, smashing down egg and avocado sandwiches and washing it down with the Quinoa/ Maca drinks I’d come to love (I was going to miss these healthy starts to the day). I crossed the border with ease and then spent the night in the biggest ghost town I’ve come across on this entire journey, although I did find some locals to hang round with, whilst they passed round the ‘Abuelo’ rum. A day later and I was dropping into the worlds highest big metropolitan city, La Paz, at an average height of 3,800 metres.

Dropping into La Paz

My brother had sent my bank cards to meet me at a hostel in La Paz (along with some chocolate to satisfy my inner fat self). According to my tracking numbers they were in La Paz, just not at the final destination. After a night at the famous WildRover Hostel enjoying the company of a few travellers, I headed to the post office to get my cards and be on my way. I hadn’t counted on the frustrating Bolivian postal service though. Yes they had my cards, but it would take three weeks to receive them. The post office is literally a five minute walk from the hostel yet it was going to take three weeks to get the cards there. I pleaded with the post office to find my cards and just give them to me there but to no avail. In the end I had to accept defeat, find a place to stay at the ‘Casa de Cyclistas’ in La Paz and start the journey south again the following day…without any cards again for the foreseeable future. The kind owner of WildRover has offered to forward them on to me, whenever the Bolivian postman can make it the five minutes up the road to deliver the cards.

232 kms later and I was on route to the Salar de Uyuni. This is a part of the journey I was really looking forward to and it didn’t disappoint. Two days later and after  speeding past some wild llamas, I panted my way up a hill to see the glistening, ‘Colgate’ white of the Salar de Uyuni laying ahead of me on the horizon. I have to admit to one or two tears welling up at this breath-taking sight. I sped on down to the town on the end of the flats, smashed down a quick lunch with a Dutch motor cyclist I’d met in the town, before heading out to take a ride across the flats, the short distance towards the town of Uyuni. The light bounced off the surface and the surrounding landscape really was a special one. I had to share the experience with a fair few jeeps crammed with tourists though, so the next day, I sought a bit of lonesome riding across the desert, after giving my bike a quick freshwater bath, to take off the bike killing salt.

I had intended on heading towards the north of Argentina, but the road in that direction had been ripped up, however the road west towards Chile wasn’t in a much better condition. I checked out a map and found an old unused trainline crossing the Salar de Uyuni. On a decision that proved to be as intelligent as cycling around the world without a bike seat (found out this man actually exists!), I headed out of the town along the edge of the train line. At times I was able to cycle on the stones lining the sides of the tracks and other times I had to head onto the salt flats themselves. They look dry but, as I found out the hard way, for the most part they are pretty damp in places, which meant it was like cycling on a giant Crème Brulée…hard in places but when you crack the surface, a lot of sinking going on. For 65 kms I pushed, dragged  and shouted my bike over the desert. The views were just incredible but by late afternoon through the burning heat, I was very much getting sick of the desert. I eventually managed to force my way to the town on the edge of the salt flats, finally letting a smile spread onto my face as I found a place to rest up for the night. The next day, I returned to the ‘road’ briefly, before I came across another huge salt flat, with only tyre marks to follow to get me across and in the right direction towards the border. Half way across the flats, the wind picked up hugely to the point where I had to drop to my lowest gear to grind against the wind, moving at a pace similar to a snail after a big night out. After a couple of wrong turns, I stumbled into the border town, desperately trying to get through immigration (a cabin by the side of the road) before Eduardo headed to his home for the night. I also managed to change my last remaining Bolivian Pesos with the stamp wielding Eduardo, which was lucky as there was no other money exchange for another 250 kms. I raced over the 3 kms of No-man’s land before the Chilean side closed and was allowed to set up my tent in Chilean customs as I passed out for the night, exhausted from the strongest winds of the journey so far. From then on it would be 4 am starts to try and beat the strong winds, which tended to get stronger as the day wore on. The Chilean Atacama is just breathtaking, albeit, even more sparse, with nothing for 250 kms except a small mining town (where an old Chilean lady, who didn’t seem to like me much, still had the heart to give me a plate of food she was cooking up for the miners). After reaching the first city in days, of Calama, I changed some money and headed south to the coastal town of Antafogasta, dropping off the plateau in 70 kms of downhill glory. When it comes to the wind I like to use the analogy of farting children to  describe my experiences so far in South America. Ecuador and Colombia are well behaved, letting out only tiny whispers here and there that no one notices. Peru and Bolivia are the attention seeking teenagers, who occasionally like to let out a huge ripple, which whilst unpleasant, might only ruin a portion of your day. Chile is the kid with the dodgy stomach who has just eaten a plate of Mexican food and who you’re forced to look after for the entire day. Whatever direction you turn you can’t escape the child taking aim and sending wave after wave of gale force wind your way. A slightly odd way to compare the countries but I hope you get the picture.

After spending the night at a slightly odd locals place who seemed to only want to wear a pair of very old ‘tighty whities’ whilst indoors, I climbed out of the city back into the desert, which turned later into a 40km climb, onto the plateau which is home to the World’s largest telescope. A matter of 4 or 5 metres from the top of this climb, I turned my pedals round one turn and heard a loud, grinding noise as I came to an abrupt halt. A tiny stone had caught in the derailleur and caused it to twist up into my spokes. In one short moment it was destroyed, along with a few spokes. I did everything I could to straighten it out but it was of no use. I quickly removed the mech and was able to cruise the huge descent to the coast. There was a scrapyard in the town which had a couple of old kids bikes, with which I unsuccessfully tried to replace my derailleur. With this a bit of a failure, I headed to a builder’s merchants, which sold me a very old derailleur I could use to get to the next town. The man insisted I headed to the local cycling ‘expert’ Richard, which even though I knew how to replace it myself, I thought could only be a better thing. As Dr Pepper says, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’

That night was both hilarious and annoying at the same time. Expecting a lycra clad, terminator sunglass wearing, cyclist to appear at the door I was instead greeted by a short, stubby old man, covered in grease and with all the resemblance of an old school mechanic. Not wanting to judge a book by its cover and encouraged by his heavenly, ultimate grandmotherly wife, I let him loose on the bike. When he went to put the derailleur where the disc brakes are, on the wrong side of the bike, I knew he perhaps wasn’t as much of an expert as people thought. I tried not to laugh as he barked instructions at me that I couldn’t understand, whilst I tried to gently encourage him to put the mech on the correct side. An hour later and after he’d done the equivolent of taping the mech to the side of the bike and destroying my last gear cable, I was left with a bike I couldn’t ride and no more gear cables. His amazing wife insisted I stop at theirs for the night and made up a bed. The next morning, I had to begrudgingly accept defeat and walk 10 kms to the edge of the desert, where I was forced to hitch a ride to the next town with the awesome Arnoldo and Guillermo.

After heading back 15 kms to get the phone they’d left in the sand where I was picked up, we headed to the next town where they took me to a bike shop, after buying me a salmon lunch and copious amounts of biscuits. They were miners stopping in the town for the night and to my surprise, upgraded their room to three people so I had a place to stay. Bike finally fixed, I could get back on my way, heading back out into the desert and to yet more Chilean Hospitality.

As I looked for a place to set up my tent for the night, I was intrigued by a small house on a mountain top way out in the desert. I decided to drag my bike along the sand road, to find out who lived there. I came across a man who looked well into his 80’s, who told me he hadn’t seen another person for 10 days. He gave me dinner and after a long conversation (think he was glad for some company) waved me off as I looked for a place to set up for the night. 6 am the next morning and more incredible hospitality, as I turned to see a huge bus behind me and an outstretched arm with two boxed lunches and a smiling Chilean wishing me happy travels. Two more days of lonesome and very hilly riding and another very kind lady, who invited me to her home where I enjoyed a huge meal with a big family and a sofa bed for the night in the living room. Chileans have made this experience so far a beautiful one with their smiles, constant waving and hospitable nature. One day later and I’m writing this from Santiago, 7 days from the gateway to Patagonia and the end of the road is now starting to appear on the horizon…a strange thought a little over 6 months after I left Alaska in October.

photo 4 (1)
Rolling into Santiago

Chile and the Bolivian desert has provided some of the most striking views of the journey so far and also some of the hardest cycling. It has been a big challenge and I was very much in need of a rest today, 14 days after leaving La Paz. The wind, the hills, the scorching sun and freezing cold early mornings have made The Salar de Uyuni and Atacama a memorable experience, with the views and scenery something I will hold close to me for a very long time. The total raised so far is at a huge £15,500, 77% of the way there and is also hopefully nearing its end. There is still some way to go though and I’m desperate for this target to be hit. I have between 3-4 weeks of cycling left and there’s £4,500 left to raise. Thanks so much to my old school Wigston College for their fundraising efforts this week, my brother Rob for continuing to do the money run for me and to everyone for continuing to support this challenge and follow the journey. Please help push this total even higher by donating to a fantastic cause today. Your money could make a huge difference to the lives of children in need of some happiness. If you’d like to learn more or to support this cause, follow the links on the website or the link below and sponsor a mile today.

JustGiving - Sponsor me now!





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s