First and foremost: cycling slow means having to carry more supplies as the distance from town to town is taking you longer. Being more heavy is even more slower. For a fast one with minimal load everything changes, but for one thing…
The Atacama is truly magnificent. Cycling through the Atacama desert in Chile turned out to be a highlight, just as I knew it would. Do you love deserts too, and would you like to have a grip on where to get water and food, read on.
I cycled through a few deserts, the Western Sahara, Mauritania, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, the Mojave in the USA, the southern part of Iran, a stretch in India, and the South Peruvian coast. But nothing quiet like Atacama.
The biggest difference with going south in the Sahara is that going north to south in Atacama is having the wind in your face, every day. Where the Sahara I could cycle 200 kilometer maximum a day, here it is at most a 70, and average a 50 kilometers a day. But that’s me, preferring it slow.
The Atacama stands out in beauty. It’s hardly flat for long, some days you sink a 1000 meters/3280 feet and climb the same amount directly. The roads are always sealed, taken excellent care for, but they are shared with truckloads of food, gas, oil, water, coaches and mining trucks. And sometimes a truckload of hay, a smell that captures you in the desert.
The longest stretch without water nor any services is 155 kilometer, from La Negra to Paposa.
The highest altitude is 3000 meter/9840 feet if you choose to cycle to Calama from Iquequi.
In summer, all rivers are dry, except those in towns. Temperatures in daytime reach 40 degrees and go close to 3 degrees in nighttime.
Cycling the Atacama is not about high altitudes, breathtaking depths, boosting mountains and high passes. It’s about distinguished colors, barren beauty, incredible vastness of nothing and space to yourself. There are no shepherds walking around, as there is nothing to eat for any species. People do not wander in the desert, they all seem to dismay the sandy rocky earth. The Atacama is truly yours.
The desert stops being a true desert at La Serena, in my opinion. From there the road is constantly fenced because of farmers having goats.
Arica to Iquequi: 312 kilometer
Arica to Chaca Khan canyon, 45 kilometer, (closed) posada, (climb)
Chaca Khan canyon to hilltop, 17 kilometer, posada, water (climb)
Chaca Khan canyon to Cuya, 38 kilometer, restaurants, water, snacks (climb)
Cuya to next hilltop, 39 kilometer, posada, water, snacks (climb)
Hilltop to start national park, 44 kilometer, posada, water
Start national park to road stall, 20 kilometer, juices, water, fruit
Road stall to Huara, 27 kilometer, posada, water, small shops
Huara to Humberstone (open air museum), 26 kilometer, water
Humberstone to Iquequi, 56 kilometer, everything!
Iquique to Tocopilla and further to Antofagasta: 413 kilometer
This stretch is along the coast and has more opportunities (than I mention below) to buy food, water and find little restaurants.
Iquique to Yape, 45 kilometer, food, water, restaurant
Yape to playa Rico Seco, 41 kilometer, food, water
Playa Rico Seco to Tocopilla, 136 kilometer, everything!
I took an unexpected inland turn but have gathered information for onward travel
Tocopilla to Michilla, 74 kilometer, water
Michilla to Hornitos, 28 kilometer, posada, water
Hornitos to Mejillones, 33 kilometer, posada, water
Mejillones to Antofagasta, 56 kilometer, everything!
To go to Calama and San Pedro de Atacama from Tocopilla: 155/256 kilometer
Tocopilla to Barriles airport, 18 kilometer, posada, water (climb)
Barilles airport to Marie-Elena, 54 kilometer, posada, water and perhaps little shops I have skipped this place
Marie-Elena to Calama, 83 kilometer, with one cruce in between where are a few food stalls, water, snacks (climb)
Calama to San Pedro de Atacama, 101 kilometer, everything in both places!
Calama to Antofagasta/La Negra: 248/233 kilometer
Calama to Sierra Gordo, 70 kilometer, small shops, restaurants, water
Sierra Gordo to turn, 46 kilometer, gas station, shower, posada, water, snacks
Turn to Baquedano, 30 kilometer, little shops, water, posada
Baquedano to La Negra, 87 kilometer, posada, water, gas stations
Baquedano to turn, 66 kilometer
Turn to Antofagasta, 15 kilometer, everything!
Antofagasta to La Negra, 24 kilometer, posada, water, gas stations (climb)
La Negra to Caldera: 447 kilometer
La Negra to Paposa, 154 kilometer (climbs), little shops, posada, water
Paposa to Tal tal, 52 kilometer, everything!
Tal tal to turn Las Bombas, 85 kilometer, posada, water
Turn Las Bombas to caleta Pan de Azucar, 30 kilometer, posada, water, snacks
Caleta Pan de Azucar to Chañaral, 26 kilometer, everything
Chañaral to Caldera, 100 kilometer, everything
A few notes on water: there is a fair chance that you run out of water but don’t worry, water is available when you keep your eyes open. Road accidents have little memorial sites where people place water for the undoubtedly thirsty death. Some off these places hosts huge tanks of water to feed the plants around it, most have simple water bottles. Truck drivers lose their bottles when they step out of their cabin and pickup trucks seem to lose them too, from their open trailer. Just be aware there is no piss in it, otherwise boil the water to be sure. Hey, I know this water might be contaminated but you are in a desert…
Besides, truck drivers are often willing to help you out, and will ask you for a hitch, all the way through the desert if you like so.