When the shiny luxury bus transported me to Lima I passed through the Atacama desert and the only thing I knew was: GO BACK! GO BACK! GO BACK! GO BACK! GO BACK! GO BACK! GO BACK!
Deserts. I have a sense that I have had a former life in the desert, when that would’ve been an option. Perhaps this is just mind made, but I do like to believe that I had a flock of animals. This former mind-made life probably went about on some west coast, and I produced embroidered handwork as part of a cultural line of work. It could have been well a life here on this continent. Just to make clear how much I love the Atacama!
I wanted to loop into the Atacama desert from Ruta 40 in Northern Argentina. I wanted so badly to be in the desert, which I thought was a compact sized desert, that I longed for it the moment I came near.
Deserts are not too hard to cycle yet it can be arduous. There are certain distances to be made to find places for food and water, but I have studied all the places where to get food and water. Yet nothing comes naturally and things can be as weird as sleeping next to a Belgium bus from Antwerp. Trespassing skills always help.
It is powerful to see I am actually entering a vast desert. It seems insane. But there I go. The first village to buy groceries is 230 kilometer afar. With an average of 40 kilometer, count the days…
The first posada to get food is closed. The next one is up a steep canyon hill, a long climb. I have so called detailed information about where to get food and water and this is the first drawback. I buy a melon instead. I stop at an emergency exit, right along the climb and above the highway, overlooking the canyon, a few evidences of road accidents and emptiness.
This part of the desert exists of canyons, land pushed up and land split. Huge openings give way to the next high canyon wall, and once up there a long downhill awaits all who throttle this deserted land.
There is not much green. Only where rivers flow, tickling tiny streams coming from the Andes, there is life. There are seemingly no animals. No scorpions, no snakes, no lizards and hardly any birds. My thoughts wander to those who long ago reigned these lands.
Goosebumps decorate my warm skin when a colorful paradise-altered bus painfully slow comes up the Camaron Cuya hilltop. The driver and his travel partner wave to me frantically, and I wave back, trying not to loose grip of the handlebars. The wind is fierce and sand blows in my face. At once I feel the hippie like they might be. I feel strong and a purist when a large group of motorbike’s from Colombia wants to get photographed with me once down in Cuya canyon. And I feel exactly the reverse thoughts when a shiny luxurious coach passes me and I was once the passenger in it.
Seen from the air, this land would seem impossible to cycle through. That’s the beauty of cycling, and man.
Magic of man can also be downright foolish. The next day, and a 1000 meter climb I have to wait an hour in line, just like the cars. There is road-work going on, and only one direction each hour is allowed. Trying to explain the man that it will take me about 4 hours to climb the hill and that I am a bicycle, not a car nor motorbike, should ring a bell. But it doesn’t. So I wait an hour in the sun, to cycle the climb with oncoming and passing traffic nonetheless.
Once above at an altitude of only 1350 meter the views are incredible. To my surprise, this is as beautiful and as impressive as being at 4000 meter. The posada is open, I eat a greasy meal, buy a lot of trash to keep my stomach filled, get a chocolate bar for free, load up on expensive bottled water and find an open camp spot.
Needless to say this costs me no time. The only difficulty is where…
Finally my desired desert dwelling in pampa de Tana.
In the pampa plenty of car wrecks litter the desert. There is total silence in the morning when the wind is absent. There are no birds to be seen, a fly is rare.
Just imagine. No sounds. Absolute quietness has the effect of getting used to it faster than one might wish for.
It is beautiful. Wide open. Barren. World becomes clear and makes sense again. The Earth gives and men feels superior as what to do with it. The Indian is no more, seemingly solely a fat, over-weighted mute human. The Chilean seems to be a Spanish descendant who built excellent roads but evidences from the Chinchorro, who drew large geoglyphs, magically shows that they were the ones truly living here.
The Chinchorro people lived here and were able to do so as water from the high Andes flows through. Their history is as impressive as the Inca’s, I found out later in a museum in Iquique.
My notes say ‘oasis’ but in reality it is national park Tamarugal. To be more precise, long ago it was a real forest sprouting from a salty earth and over time fully deforested by local shepherds, villagers who needed fuel for fires. The government has replanted the trees and now the road cuts right through a seemingly natural forest. Coming closer one will see the lines in planting, the tracks where jeeps might have run. Coming a bit more closer one will hear the crackling of the salty earth.
Due to heating and cooling down the salt plates, which are haphazardly arranged without having a flat surface, are hollow underneath, and big holes dip deeply. Drops of sheep and goat and plenty of lizards give life to the place. At night, when everything is quiet, the sound of cracks goes on continuous, and is as loud as the sounds on ice while ice-skating. It’s frightening. I dream of vanishing in a large hole where boiling water erupts from.
There is a lot of wind, always a headwind when I am on a plateau. When I am climbing the wind seems to push me a bit, and when I go down the hill the wind has turned and I need to press the peddles. Is this thermal magic to assist or bother the cyclist?
When the wind gets too strong I stop at Humberstone, a former salt refinery factory, now an open air museum. I search for a place out of the wind, with shade and succeed so into the desert, overlooking the old, rusty factory. This is another part of Humberstone, and when I sit down I remarkably feel myself turning into a woman who has sat here long ago, worked in those factories and had a tough, hard life with minimum possibilities to find enjoyment in life.
The stretch between Humberstone and Iquique is fenced but this doesn’t prevent me from feeling grand, together with the trucks and their roaring engines I have conquered the land of sand, the hills and the wind.
And then arriving at the end of the land is realizing this is not Iquique yet. This city spreads underneath me, like a gem in the vastness of a great desert. Another 500 meter lower I see a dazzling width, which combined with the depth makes me speechless. The super long downhill is a cherry on the cake, the huts glued to the sandy hill are cracks in the icing of it.
Finding a camping in Iquequi ends at Playa Brava, where a young attractive Chilean invites me over to the hostal he stays at. He feels empathy for me, who crossed the desert and now wants to sleep at the beach, shower at the gas station. ‘Don’t you worry, I pay for it. How long do you want to stay?’
Four days fit’s fine.
Claudio’s hospitable approach couldn’t have been more welcoming, as I have ripped open the skin where the saddle soreness needed to be taped. I am dirty, having my periods and nothing I carry is clean, after more than a week in the desert.
Claudio takes me to restaurants I couldn’t afford. I get to eat cross cultural surprises where ceviche is fussed beautifully with sushi. We eat lemon pie for breakfast and he takes me downtown to find me whatever I verbalize. I like waiting for him to return from his desert work, because we have interesting things to talk about.
‘Maybe she thinks I want something from her?’ is what Claudio thought when he invited me. ‘Maybe he expect something of me?’ is what I thought when Claudio invited me. ‘You should give him something back,’ said my dad. But fact is that he is proud to know a person like me, and I am not only thankful but also interested in his way of living and thinking; it simply is a interactive exchange of two single minds who share remarkable many similarities. The beauty of travel.