‘The Atacama Desert. The air is so dry, so clear, and there’s so few people, almost no lights. And you can lie on your back and look up and see the Milky Way. All the stars like a splash of milk in the sky. And you see them slowly move. Because the Earth is moving. And you feel like you’re lying on a giant spinning ball in space.‘ Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
With less tan on my arms I cycle out of Calama, noticing my fitness has plummeted dramatically too. That my belly has gathered more fat is no issue but the wind seems fiercer than ever, or is only because being in towns I haven’t noticed the unfriendly desert weather?
With two stoves, as I have received a new one, replacing the Svea, my load is bulkier. Food supply seems a bit fancy, resembling not a world cyclist but rather a chef.
I’m off to Antofagasta, 140 kilometer, slowly descending to sea-level. Soon, just out of Calama I meet with a couple Romanians. They have taken a truck to bring them from Copiapo, a 600 kilometers south, to here. They appear emotionless and solely in for information. Their first question is whether I am alone and their only passionate comment is that they don’t like Chileans up north.
I wonder how they can make an opinion, having just arrived by truck and pedaling less than half a day? I do like the north Chileans, especially being out of touristy parts and away from people trying to make an income through travelers.
Where I was not allowed to get a closer look at a mining excavator at Chuquicamata mine, I am beckoned over at Sierra Gordo. I may mount a machine with wheels measuring 3 meter diagonal. I am gifted a precious stone oro de los tonto, and a bottle cold water. More so, without showing tiredness I am offered a lift, which I decline, ‘you like the action of the desert’, is the mine-worker his correct comment.
‘Me encanta la desierto tambien’
The route is all about mining. People love working for the blue-greenish stuff as it pays well, that is what every single person who works for the mine tells me.
All truck loads, all train wagons and all explosions I hear are about mining. From Sierra Gordo to Antofagasta the road is fenced. And still warm is the desert, with a daytime temperature of 25 to 30 degrees, shooting up over 40 at times, which is too hot to sit pleasantly in the sun.
Again, it occurs immediately, there’s no life in Atacama. I think I see birds, but a second glance shows another truth. I even think I see a horse, next to my camp spot, but it’s a mirage, a mere left over building, perhaps 100 years of age.
What I do find are shoes. Handmade, antique shoes. I pull them out of the earth. If I had enough food and water to idle, I’d stay and dig out more treasures. I am at Pique Chela, a left-over town. ‘Pique was our distraction, we hoped the weekend to climbed up the truck and going to Pique Chela. I’m learn to swim in Pique,’ said Iris Fredes.
This old town, where they drilled vertically for water in one of the driest deserts in the world, is impressive. Just by having a closer look at the shoes I am stunned by its great skills. How the walls are plastered, and still standing shows expertise, as well as blowing of glass, and building a swimming pool. To be honest, I feel an immediate sense of proud, to be an ancestor of those western people who came here to have a better live. True, they didn’t know much about the animal world, occult businesses, or how to transform nature into daily usage as much as the indigena did. Yet manipulation of a desert they knew about.
In 1900, mining settled in this area and led to the arrival of large numbers of people seeking to make money. In 1903 the steamer ‘Columbia’ from San Francisco brought the bubonic plague. It was called the ‘cursed boat’ because its entry into the country meant the beginning twenty years marked by thousands of deaths, not only because of the bubonic plague, but also of smallpox, yellow fever, typhus, measles, pneumonia and tuberculosis. In 1910 the bubonic plague claimed 988 lives of the 3053 people who contracted mostly at little towns of the Chilean north.
This explains why I see quite a few graveyards, very old, neatly arranged, huge in size. Most deaths occurs in the same year, 1925, and many children were buried alongside each other.
Each day goes following a same pattern: quiet wind in the morning building up at midday, reaching a high at two and pointing right at my chest. I arrive in camp with squishing ears and stressed from the tiresome exercise. First thing I need to do is cool down, in the full sun that is.
I always go to bed dirty, but calm. And I always wake up fully energized and with great zest for a new desert day.
Then 155 kilometers headwind without any service, without running streams, of course.
Most people I talk to warn me not to take which ever route going further south, from La Negra onward. I better take a bus, opt Claudio time upon time. ‘There is nothing,’ he says. But I doubt he’d ever even drove this route. When I come upon people who actually drive those roads, mine workers, they give me better advise. ‘Don’t take the coastal road, it’s gravel.’ But at a gas station several people tell me to take the Ruta 5. ‘That road is flat,’ a guy tell me. Flat? How is that possible with a start of 500 meters up to 2100 meter in altitude. Ruta 5 is about twice as long as the route I am eyeballing. My preferred route is ‘up and down all the time’ and ‘you can not get water at the observatory’.
I don’t believe them. An observatorio to watch the stars, planets and galaxy with a restaurant and a hotel surely must have water. ‘No, there is no water,’ tells a man who offers me a lift the next day. ‘You need a pre-arrangement to get there, otherwise it is closed, and far off the main road, with a long steep climb,’ says a truck driver from Santiago, all in Spanish. He has stopped his truck with which he transports fruit. He too offers me a lift since his truckload is empty, and the road to Santiago long. I again decline the offer as I am enjoying the ride. I have enough energy and plenty of food, besides, I love the desert. But perhaps he does have some water then, since there is nothing to get at the Paranal observatory? He sure does, in his cabin with 4 centimeter tick floor-cover hairs, and a Rick Ashley song blaring through his cabin, he fills my water-bladder with 8 liters. 8 kilo heavier I sing out loud. Saved!
I cycle from hill top to bottom, each climb 25 kilometer long, each time the top ahead of me seems unpleasantly steep but it is an optical illusion.
Another driver seems frantically in need to talk to me. He brakes, rolls down his window eagerly and is just a tad too late, as I am swinging down the hill. He turns, tries again to get my attention: ‘Buenos tardes, do you want to ride with me?’ I thank the man, but no. I am fine. ‘You like cycling?’ he asks. I agree, I do like cycling. ‘But the hill after Paposa is véry steep,’ the man says. ‘The route from Antofagasta to here was easy though,’ I reply, not believing a super steep hill would suddenly appear in this landscape. The man, sweaty and chubby with eyes eagerly wanting to give me a lift, continues: ‘Yes, that was all very easy, but the climb from Taltal up is incredible hard, with a snake-like road going up,’ and he moves his hand swiftly from left to right. ‘I am okay, thank you,’ it will be 3 days before I reach that part anyway. Why take a lift when I want to be in the Atacama desert? ‘Okay, then, you must like climbing on your bicycle,’ he finishes his proposal.
In reality the climb is very gradual and rather straight. A real easy climb, up to 880 meter. What a difference in perception!
When I overlook the deep, long downhill in front of me, my eyes travel over clouds and way below meet with the Pacific, I decide it’s not time for the ocean yet. I stop and camp.
Which is never a smart thing to do as the wind is fierce.
A thirty-two kilometer long downhill further is Paposa. Then Taltal. I am tired. I have cycled 9 days nonstop and need a rest. Cycling in the desert has one disadvantage, that food and water supply need to be planned well. I can never stay at a place which I like, as water and food is limited and often need to travel 4 days before I can stock up. Being in Taltal gives me supply, and a neat, organized, well set up place to camp: a car- and truck graveyard.
Without having any energy left in my phone nor power bank, I kind of feel desperate longing for contact. As usual, I embroider, cook, and make plenty of photo’s but I miss human interaction. And I don’t mean the men at the truck-yard coming to add or fetch junk.
Then Saul arrives. He lives alone with his dog Loco and cat Daniel, in a wooden press-wood structure opposite the car cemetery. He is the watchman, and unannounced he brings me a plate of food. Saul is a stocky short man who appears to be retarded. He explains he has had a stroke and is divorced. He tells me he loves the unconditional love he receives from his two pet companions, who were both left behind on the street.
The next morning, 5 minutes after my breakfast, Saul arrives. He’s dressed in crispy clean clothes showing no wear, showered and combed, insisting I have breakfast at his place. Sitting behind a plate of homemade fish soup, I adore Loco and more so cat Daniel. I realize this is what I needed, although my Spanish is not comprehensible, Saul understands what I want to say. But unlike his pets, he is not so unconditioned, and wants to receive kisses.
I find that incomprehensible. Saul must see I am not exactly a match for him. Or is the fact that I am alone enough? He shows me his bedroom, and try to have me admire the view from the adjoining room, a beach with rubble and unfinished structures: ‘Que lindo, si?‘ Well, I think its ugly.
Though, feeling lighter in my heart I cycle on. 8 kilometers further I meet with a couple cycling. It are Mina and Habib, from Iran. I instantly like them. They are warm, sincere, and Mina her smile and Persian tongue works wonders for me. We talk for one and a half hour, and when we say goodbye Mina hands me over a package of chocolate cookies. I give them the two apples I just received from the grocery guys.
The absolute silence perplex me again. Just a little away from Ruta 1, in a small quebrada between cacti, when the wind has gone to rest, the earth stops breathing and I am listening to the deafening sound of no-thing. It’s one of the most beautiful sounds.
It’s not always heavenly in the desert though. There are these days, the first since I am in Atacama, I get a little tired of the desert, or rather, a few bumps in the road have made me moody. Being back on main road Ruta 5, where a man beckons me over and announces I am not visible, blending right in the black tarmac. I think with my bright blue clothing I am an exact copy of a smurf, or any tropical bird, and so I must be super visible. Especially with the mandatory fluorine yellow vest on the back. I have my periods and am in great need for Chilean M&M’s. I am fed up of the insanely priced water, and my Rohloff hub which leaks a lot of oil is bothering me too.
I get tired of the bread fried in cheap sunflower oil making it taste like crappy donuts. I get enough of the bad quality pasta I make each evening, with tomato paste from a package, fake granulated Parmesan, olives too salty and artificial sour and tuna fish from a tin isn’t really nice either. I am fed up with the cookies which I would not even look at back home. The food is cheap and full of sugar. Honey is made from corn syrup and the powdered milk always leaves thick bits behind, a nasty surprise at the last sip of awful tasting ‘real Ceylon’ tea.
I want to rest but I can’t. The food I carry is exactly enough for the next town to buy disgusting supplies again. Unless I hit a big city where they have Tottus, Jumbo or Lidder supermarkets I have to do with nasty, cheap food which fills but don’t has me want to eat any extra. I want to laze underneath shadow but a day off means shifting and moving from one shady spot to another, if there is any shade. The wind always picks up too early and stops too late. A day off is more or less a hassle.
Cycling through National Park Pan de Azucar is again dazzling. I see precious few cars, and another cyclist, Jaime from Santiago. He carries a self-made solar panel. I ogle it, wish I had it. He tells me I have Pan de Azucar all for myself, I answer the whole Atacama is for ourselves.
The road is sealed but in such a way its merging with the surroundings. I take a vow: to avoid the Ruta 5 as much as possible.
My camp in Pan de Azucar, where I am not supposed to deviate from the path, neither to make a fire and camp, is one of the better spots. Hidden in a quebrada with spectacular views. I find wood, the smell of a real fire makes me utterly happy. It reminds me of a truck load of hay in the desert: preciously delicious.
I wish I could stay a day.
But I can’t and slowly this is bothering me. Even would I have enough water and food with me, there is no shade. Temperatures rising above 40 degrees in the sunlight doesn’t make for a nice day of rest. The only thing I can do on such a day is keep quiet. Reading outside requires shade for the screen to see something on, writing on the computer requires no sand swirling around, preferably. So you see, my life at the very moment is really only about cycling. That is an effect of being in a desert. And that I prefer to see different.
‘I am going to take a shower here at the gas station, meanwhile I will charge my electronics and then I am off to the ocean to do laundry,’ I say to a man who’d asked about my plans. ‘We have a washing-machine and a dryer, come with us,’ he replies in Flemish. It are Christian and Ann, from Belgium. They have moved for 8 months to the home town of Christian, and I stay two nights. My clothes are washed, WiFi offered and a cake for my birthday baked by Christian’s mom. Ann and I talk for two days straight, we laugh a lot with Christian and not only my electronics are charged, so am I, with social energy.
Never before have I been this long without hotels, without electricity and without cleaning. It needs a whole different mindset, life suddenly becomes less filled up with artificial needs and so it becomes more clear, and at times plain boring too.
I meet with Georgie, a young lady who is often called too boyish by the guys she cycles with. She is loaded with less than 15 kilograms, she is always stronger than any man she cycles with and her average is a 100 kilometers a day. Besides talking about the fantastic girl issues, Georgie reminds me of the existence of lentils. As if my brain is set for pasta only, soon I’ll eat a dish with less pasta. Praise Georgie!
Continuing on along the coast, avoiding the Ruta 5, I am back on track and fully content. Landscapes open up like heavens, the ocean glitters as a wet snake and the road is crackled and empty.
From Playa Portofino, a roughly built beach village with an arty vibe, I continue to Caldera. An honest shop owner tells me better to buy a 6 liter bottle, 1800 pesos instead of 3 bottles of 1.5 liter which add up to 3600 pesos.
With plenty of water I head to the Marina Protegida area where mountain Morro rules. I stop, turn left. End up in a vastness where stones like mushroom-heads dot nature. Dry gnarled wood at my disposal. Heavily overcast. I decide to stay a day! Life is good.
I get enormously excited when the next day a few adorable small rain drops fall!
There is only thing which need attention, I can not camp in quebrada’s anymore. I must take care not to sleep in riverbeds or near streams. The rainy season is in full swing and as I have seen in Chañaral, water from higher up can come down any moment, through where ever it wants, swooshing away whole villages.
More info about numbers and distances here