A Week in San Pedro de Atacama, Paso Jama Time and Argentina Ahoy


Arriving in the desert town of San Pedro de Atacama I felt like Jasper from The Simpsons emerging from the Kwik-E-Mart freezer. “Moon Valley? What a time to be alive.” Everything was so clean and functional. The toilets had toilet seats and people in shops actually initiated conversation. However, being a tourist town it was also bloody expensive. We went to a coffee shop and the price our “large” coffees and croissants cost the same as 3 nights of accommodation in Bolivia.

Upon arrival we had to go through the stringent Chilean customs checkpoint. No fruits, vegetables or animal products can be brought into the country and the penalty is around $200. Cue me and Philipp stashing some renegade apples behind a nearby tree.
San Pedro, situated on the fringes of the Atacama desert, is an odd mix of high end tourism and hippy enclave.
It’s very pretty – a neat grid of well kept colonial streets – but such is the level of tourism that some of the charm of this oasis town has dried up.

After a night in a campsite we met up with Philipp’s friend, Muriel, who let us camp in front of her little hippy hollow on the edge of town. Muriel, being half Italian, half German and growing up in France, speaks about 6 languages and works as a tour guide, giving tourists the lowdown on the innumerable natural wonders that surround San Pedro. Me and Philipp spent a week with her and her horde of dogs (and cat) relaxing in the relative warmth, eating delicious home cooked food and doing a whole lot of nothing.

Our home for the week.
Muriel with Peppa: the esteemed older lady of the dog crew.
Every morning all 4 of the dogs would charge into the room and demand feeding and attention. Here I am mauling Mariposa – an endearing but sloppy nightmare of a dog – and Peppa.
All the while Yang looks down upon her inferiors.
Har de har.
Philipp nearly dying of  the resulting hysterics.
While Philipp and Muriel went to nearby Calama to buy a new air mattress I explored the nearby Moon Valley – so called for the layer of salt that gives it a lunar appearance.
The Atacama desert is the driest in the world – a prototype for a Mars rover was tested there by scientists because of its dry and forbidding terrains – and millions of years of geological horseplay has created some stunning formations.
The 3 Marias. Which of these beauties is your favourite?

Paso Sico, the unpaved and supposedly more scenic road to the Argentinian border, was closed so the only available route east was Paso Jama. Reaching the pass entailed a brutal 2000m climb in the space of 30km followed by a stretch of very high altitude cycling through icy peaks and salars. Like a dirty little cheater I wanted to hitchhike through this part. I’d had a taste of camping at -10 degrees in Bolivia and wasn’t keen on repeating it. However, after a few hours our thumb waving had received little but stony glares from the passing truck drivers and we accepted our fate. We were going to cycle this monster or get very cold trying.

Volcan Licancabur bore down upon us. A constant reminder of the climb that lay in wait.
The road wasn’t designed with cyclists in mind and was completely straight most of the way up. I hadn’t climbed a proper hill since back in Peru and was dreading the steep ascent but surprisingly found it rather enjoyable.
We made good time and, having been pulled up 4km by a passing van and gifted a baguette and fruit from a tourist truck, before long we were half way up and in high spirits. Then things started to get tough.
The punishing gradient never eased, we got tired and the altitude started to take its toll. As we neared 4000m we were both reduced to pushing, slowly wheezing our way up like life long chain smokers.
I pulled this face for the best part of 2 hours.
Eventually we cut our losses and set up camp for the night…
…surrounded by ice shards – pretty to look at but an ominous sign of the low temperatures to come.
After passing an upturned oil truck (we were temped to ask them for a bottle but didn’t want to add insult to injury)…
…we reached this stunning plateau and all of the climbing was suddenly worth it.
High altitude cycling (the highest point was around 4800m) doesn’t get much better than this. I was so glad we didn’t end up hitching a ride.
After meandering through the mountains for a while…
…we emerged to this vista and set up camp nearby.
We survived the night and paid the laguna a visit the next morning. A herd of vacuna, the llama’s more graceful cousin that have some of the finest fur in the world, were scampering around.
Lunch beckoned and we used this shrine as a windbreak on the edge of the salar.
Then after some more impressive views…
we crossed the frontier into country no.6. AWOOOOooooOOOO!!!
Every border crossing should have a little goat to greet you.
The border town of Jama wasn’t quite what we’d expected. Truly a scab on the face of the earth, it looked more Bolivian than most of Bolivia and boasted the single most depressing playground I’ve ever seen. After 2 nights of freezing camping I was getting a cold, so we crashed at a cheap little hospedaje in this shitheap.
Lunch in the middle of nowhere.
After hours of flanking another vast salar the scenery began to change…
…and we crossed over into canyon country.
Definite shades of Arizona and Nevada round these parts. After weeks of mostly flat antiplano cycling we were ecstatic to get a taste of something different.
And, despite my cold, I had my first taste of Argentinian beer in Susques, where we stayed in the type of cheap dive I hadn’t expected to find in Argentina.
Siesta time.
The next day, after scaling a few hills and traversing a windy canyon, we alighted on yet another salar, Salinas Grandes…
…where we were allowed to sleep inside this salt hall.
Not quite a salt hotel but close enough. We were both happy just to be inside.
Unlike in Bolivia, they process and sell the salt, along with mining for potassium and lithium brine.
The next day, what we thought would be a rudimentary 400m climb turned out to be a 800m slog up this slew of switchbacks.
After repenting for our profanities on the climb…
We reached the pass at 4150m, perhaps my last such pass of the trip…
…and started the absolutely bonkers descent known as “Cuesta de Lapin”
I won’t forget this one in a hurry.
20km of carpal tunnel inducing switchback action later and we were in a sublime valley of resplendent rock walls and cypress trees.
Purmamarca’s “montana de siete colores” shortly awaiting our arrival.
To say we were happy to arrive would be an understatement.
And we celebrated with some tortillas rellenas: grilled tortillas stuffed with cheese and ham. I’m a fan.

On the descent down to Purmamarca I was reborn. No more donning every piece of clothing I own to bed and wearing thermal underwear like a second skin. No more wrapping my legs in an emergency blanket like some tin foil Tutankhamun. No more shivering in my tent, begging the sun to creep over the horizon and give me the courage to pry myself from my sleeping bag and into morning’s icy maw.

Winter had come and gone and we’d survived. We’d conquered The Wall, tickled a few White Walkers and lived to tell the tale. Soon my coarse woolen gloves would be nothing but a quaint reminder of our chilly former lives. We were in fucking Argentina: land of milk, honey and mate and we’d eat steaks the size of Caribbean islands, drink the finest $2 box wines available to humanity and, by God, we’d sleep in… moderate temperatures.

That night I sat around the campfire in my shorts well into the night – something utterly unthinkable in the past 2 months.
And with that we started a new chapter of the journey.

Tunes: The Very Best of The Cars, Joyce Manor – Cody, Manchester Orchestra – A Black Mile To The Surface, The Weakerthans – Left and Leaving, The Beatles – Let It Be

Reads: Son of Hamas – Mosab Hassan Yousef, The Prince – Machiavelli, The Great War of Civilisation – Robert Fisk, 11/22/63 – Stephen King

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