Cycling south from Vallenar, the desert grows less severe, though the midday temperature is rather higher. There are posadas and other sources of supplies far more frequently, so it is no longer necessary to carry so much water.

The steepest and highest I had to climb was only to around 1200m, though with the temperature approaching 40ºC, this was a little harder than I’ve become accustomed to. I chatted to a passing road maintenance crew at the bottom of the hill -they were sympathetic to someone else also being out in the sun all day- who gave me some of their water, and told me to drop past their shack at the top for some more. (It made a huge difference being able to drink what I had and know some more awaited me).

I camped one night on a broad dry riverbed – the scattered but relatively tall vegetation hiding me well, to the point that a desert fox approaching from downwind all but blundered into my tent. I don’t know which one of us got more of a fright. I also discovered that my stove pump had begun to leak petrol copiously. The twigs and leaf litter made for an effective if not pleasantly fragrant fire. I chose better the following nights and sought eucalyptus to burn. It’s fun cooking with a fire, but makes camping discreetly almost impossible.

Once more there were roadside stalls with good local produce- Avocado (‘Palta’ in Chile), papaya, and cheese, amongst other things.

I had planned to skirt round the sprawl of Santiago to the west – but the stove leak and the fact that one of my brakes needed attention – necessitated a visit to Chile’s largest city. (While clearing dust from a jammed brake piston, I managed to allow a good quantity of fluid out and air in to the brake line- not easily fixable at the roadside)

The last few days to Santiago were along a fairly straight road- many short climbs and descents along the coast, before turning inland and crossing the last of the low hills before the capital. A short section at the top is still under construction – or rather the second carriageway is. As a result of the works, for around 5km the road southward is barely two lanes wide- scarcely room for the overtaking competition in constant progress, and certainly no room for me.
Being the weekend, there were only security staff on site- they allowed me to proceed up the unfinished side as far as it went. As the sun went down, there was little option – the security crew were welcoming- fed me, let me use their shower (the plastic tank of water more than adequately heated by the sun) and let me string up my hammock outside their cabin. The following morning the crew-change truck gave me a lift the short distance to the end of the roadworks.

Descending into the large flat plain that accommodates Santiago, another shift is evident – it’s still hot, but enormously greener. Gone are the cacti and thorny bushes- replaced by fields of cereals, mature trees, and viniculture.

I stayed rather longer in Santiago than planned- resting, sampling a cross section of Chileno wines (and a certain amount of rum) – and getting my mechanical woes corrected. The boys and girls at Una Velocidad were full of useful advice about the road south, and my rear brake was restored to working order by one of the Chileno national MTB team mechanics at Dr Bike. I also met Bruce – the only other Scot I’ve so far met in South America; you can follow his adventures at teapotone.com.

Thus with difficulties culinary and hydraulic behind me, I ran out of excuses and headed south.

A steady climb south from Antofagasta (the tropic of Capricorn now behind me) – up beyond 2000m. The wind varies in direction and strength, pace of progress varying with it.

On the way up, I passed El Mano del Desierto – an impressive concrete sculpture of a human hand reaching out (or sinking into?) the desert floor. I chatted to a Brasiliano couple- themselves on a long motorcycle trip. They were suprised that I was cycling across such a lonely place by myself..
Just then, a landrover discovery with British plates barrelled up from the highway – Naomi leaning out and shouting my name. I haven’t seen Naomi for 23 years; little has changed it seems, as back then I was also often to be seen cycling around wearing a silly hat (albeit in a rather different dusty and warm place)

A journey is made by all the many encounters along the way- bizarre and wonderful to bump into someone I actually knew in the midst of the Atacama’s sterile vastness.
Naomi & Liam headed north, bound for Peru and Bolivia – theirs is another story.

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The spaces between water sources thus far haven’t been too large- the biggest has been a little more than 100km. On the way I passed both a pedestrian (who was glad to learn of more closely spaced posadas in front) and a gentleman selling ice cream from a polystyrene icebox. At least one of my photos bears more than a passing resemblance to the surface of Mars- I’m told that NASA’s rovers were indeed tested not far away.

The effects of the dryness are certainly exacerbated by the altitude- my experiences climbing higher than that were no doubt of great help. Fine dust invades everything- one of my brake pistons and the cylinders of both my stove pump and bicycle pump failed as the dust scoured out all the grease. (The latter two were easily fixable – I’ll need to find a good bike shop to get my rear brake back in working order)
This is one of the driest parts of the Atacama- some of the hillsides bear the marks of water having flowed at some point- but most don’t.

I turned of Ruta 5 at Las Bombas after a long and gradual descent back to almost sea level- along a hard packed dirt road into the Pan de Azucar national park. (So named for the shape of a close by island, home to a colony of penguins). The road descends to the coast along a river valley-no water on the surface, but a reasonable amount of vegetation on the surface providing a welcome change from the bleakness of the desert.

I arrived in a picturesque fishing village shortly before sunset- introducing myself to a French couple camped nearby by misjudging the sand yet again and clattering to the ground in less than dignified fashion. I welcomed the new year with Muriel and Jerome – they kindly shared their wine and shellfish with weary and bruised cyclist.
I awoke to the first sunrise of 2014 in my hammock- a quieter Hogmanay than usual, but not so bad at all.

I rejoined route 5 at Chañaral – the road follows the coast again as far as Caldera before turning sharply inland again for Copiapó. I was well stocked with food and water, so opted to turn south and bypass the town.

Proceeding south, a little water is evident- scrubby plants and cacti, but no longer restricted to the lowest ground. As if to remind me that we’re not out of the desert just yet, a dust storm blew up- visibility reduced to around 100m, and progress remaining possible mostly as the wind was mercifully at my back.

Vallenar lies in another river valley- this is by far the lushest place I’ve been in Chile, and is a product of the different topography of the mountains east of here. Further north, almost all of the plentiful rain that falls flows downhill to the east into Bolivia or Argentina, but here is relatively verdant- a pleasant place to recover and attend to the urgent issue of laundry.

It’s only 650km to Santiago- I don’t know if I’ll actually go there, but I’m on my way southward once again.

Ruta 1 gently undulates as it winds it’s way south, hugging the Pacific coast. The hills to the east seem to form a wall separating the narrow stripe of low lying coast from the rest of the Atacama.

There is still almost no fresh water – I did cross a bridge at one point that had a river actually flowing beneath it, but it was hardly more than a trickle.

Nevertheless – there is plenty of life. Shellfish abound in the sea, a variety of birds wheel overhead, and enormous sealions laze in the sun, bellowing at one another. Crabs scuttle amongst the rock pools which teem with small fish, anemones, and lots of things I don’t have names for. There are small iguana-like reptiles too- one was curious enough to come very close to my tent, and seemed to enjoy nibbling scraps of pasta left over from my evening meal.

Scattered along the coast are small villages- people come here to surf and swim, though fishing and gathering of seaweed are important as well, perhaps more so. (The latter – I’m not sure for what purpose)

There is an airport just south of Iquique, which apparently has a military purpose as well – civilian airliners climb rapidly away, while smaller jets patrol a little closer to the earth.

The wind is strong here sometimes- but the variability makes it so much more bearable than the coastal deserts of Perú. It is even possible to play golf here – I didn’t see anyone actually playing, though there is a choice of venues, one even describing iself as a ‘country club’.

Tocopilla us dominated by it’s large electric plant and port facilities – such saltpeter that is still extracted is transported from here, as is the (nowadays) more profitable copper. Heavily damaged by an earthquake seven years ago, the town is nonetheless cheerful and busy.

And it’s so very nearly Christmas! The supermarket in Iquique was blaring out a terrible version of ‘Winter Wonderland’ while I was there, and the coffee I had at the Rio Loa customs post came in a mug decorated with festive snowmen. “Es Navidad!” the girl cheerfully explained, as we both looked out at the pitiless sun beating down on the Atacama desert outside. Claro que si.

Leaving Perú took but a moment- I even stopped and had a leisurely breakfast at one of the stalls nearby.
Entering Chile took five hours of queueing- evidently as a consequence of industrial action on the part of the Chileno border staff.

Peru and Chile have been to war over the Atacama- but not in living memory. Nevertheless- Chile seems prepared to defends itself. Bunkers close to the border (‘Ventanas en la tierra!’ I was told), mines, and a military presence that .. while not excessive, can hardly be with any other purpose. Mining is a massive industry- nitrate and iodine extraction having been consigned to history, huge copper mines seem to supply much of Chile’s wealth.

I stocked up on food and water in Arica, and cycled off for my first experience of the Atacama desert.

A gentle climb, passing the largest coca-cola logo in the world (a geoglyph in itself- I can’t decide if putting it there us an abomination or a good place to hide such a thing) and descent into Chaca canyon. The canyon floor looks almost lush and verdant from above – it is so only by comparison; the vegetation is sparse and thorny. The posada in the canyon was closed- I’m not sure if permanently or not.

A long climb from the bottom of the canyon up to 1600m- by halfway up, I was nursing a slow puncture on my front wheel (not surprising given the ragged state of that tyre after Peru) and my rear tyre was again trying to escape through the spoke holes. My front tyre was easily patchable, but the combination of tyre patches and rim tape on the rear was proving unequal to the task. I limped up to the km2008 posada at the top of the hill- daylight, food, and coffee would help.

The next day, I wasn’t able to fix whatever ailed my rear wheel- I think the particular combination of that narrow rim and relatively wide tyre was the problem, amd was causing it to burst with monotonous regularity. It seemed foolish to press on further into the desert this way, not least as the new rim, spokes and tyres I had ordered from the UK would be arriving with Olivia soon enough.

I met Aldo and Nico- two Chileno lads who’d also had tyre trouble with their camioneta. They weren’t going to Calama, but were able to drop me at the Marie Elena crossroads where I camped overnight, and and got another lift the rest of the way. So in the end I reached Calama a couple of days early- met Olivia (our adventures are the subject of a guest entry), rebuilt my wheel, and eventually got the bus back to the km2008 posada to start again.

The Atacama desert has in theory at least a much harsher climate than the Sechura- most of it has an all but unmeasurable amount of rainfall, and no useful groundwater. There are places where water is evident, but they are rare indeed. It is a bleak and forbidding landscape- even cooled by a breeze, it’s hard to describe just how strong the sun is. That said- cycling through it not unpleasant. Hay paz en el desierto.

Cycling past the posada at Cuya, the road runs next to a riverbed – the wind has carved the sediment into bizarre shapes clearly untouched by water. I was flagged down by Ignacio – he was driving in the other direction, but had cycled this way before. ‘The real desert starts here! ‘ he warned, and gave me some water.

I continued south – camping in the desert us unproblematic, save for the need to be careful about water. Thus far, this hasn’t been that difficult, with sufficiently frequent truckstops. Sometimes there is a haar – a gentle mist apparently drifting from the sea (the closest to rain that ever happens) – but most of the time the stars at night are clear in a way I’ve rarely seen.
The air at night is cool and dry, and there are no animals evident, not even insects.

I passed the oasis town of Huara, and turned for the coast at Humberstone. (abandoned nitrate mining town- home to 3700 people as recently as 1960, now a faintly spooky museum)

Cycling directly westward was a little harder- the wind coming from the Pacific can be quite strong. Nestled into a small strip of low lying coast is Iquique- a good place for paragliding and surfing it seems, and quite a large town.

My route is directly south for now, along the Pacific coast – bound for Antofagasta.

We are three leaving Huancavelica- climbing steeply at first, and into the seasonal chilly afternoon rain characteristic of that part of the Andes.
Arriving in a tiny village after dark, Victor kindly offers his floor for us all to kip down on – I was certainly grateful to be out of the weather.

Clearer weather the following day – no respite from the mud, however. I’m not so used to this, but the hills are beautiful and the gradients manageable. The few people we do meet are friendly and welcoming .. amused I think by these faintly ridiculous strangers.

A welcome plate of lomo saltado (the finding of which was of particular importance to Cass) after a steep and winding descent into Lircay, and another mechanical problem. My rear wheel was noticeably further from true than usual – it turned out that the rim itself had fractured, and one of the spokes had pulled itself all the way out, leaving a nasty hole. Not an easily fixable problem .. but Kurt is a man of not inconsiderable ingenuity.

One of the holes that would ordinarily support a spoke and nipple was entirely broken- however, by using a bent washer, it was possible to house the spoke using the inner wall of the rim. This requires a rather longer spoke- in this case Kurt used a ‘trucker’s hitch’ to tie together two spokes and create a hybrid spoke of just the right length. Not particularly pretty, but more than good enough to get me rolling again.

The afternoon having been mostly consumed by this and other errands, we resolved to head some distance out of town on camp by the river while there was still light.

I wasn’t that far behind the others, but I lost sight of them while negotiating some roadworks and soft earth masquerading as a road surface. Somehow, I cycled past them without any of us noticing.
Thinking that they must have seen somewhere suitable further up the hill, I pressed on, and on.. up a series of hairpins climbing a steep hill. Nowhere for a tent, let alone three. In the darkness I could see several clusters of lights, and at one point a flailing torchlight (surely there’s a gringo on the other end of that?)

800 metres above Lircay I admitted defeat- the only remotely flat ground I could find that wasn’t made of rock or alpaca shit was directly under the solitary streetlight in a tiny village. Trying to camp discreetly would be folly in any case, so I pitched my tent, strung up my Peruano flag, and went to sleep. Cass and Kurt appeared the following morning, having imagined that I’d retreated to Lircay with wheel problems .. until they discovered my tracks in the mud.

And so- onward and upward towards Ayacucho, with an excellent view of the hillside I’d largely climbed in the dark.. a view I’d have ample time to appreciate, as it turned out. A loud twanging sound heralded the jury-rigged spoke and washer pulling through the rim. Closer inspection revealed many other fractures next to other spoke holes; I think I was lucky to get as far as I did.

Not so many minutes later, a motorcyclist appeared- I scribbled a note for him to pass to Kurt & Cass (somewhere out in front) .. and waited.
After a couple of hours (and a cup of tea) a collectivo appeared- I was on my way. Also on board was a doctor seconded there from Lima- also something of a foreigner in these parts- in the next village, he kindly bought me lunch, and helped arrange transport to Ayacucho.

Finding a suitable replacement rim in Ayacucho was not particularly easy- one with the correct diameter and number of holes was eventually located – built up badly in the bike shop, and properly by Kurt. I ended up staying a week, and had a chance to order proper replacement parts, including new tyres which by this point I badly needed.

I eventually headed out along a brand new tarmac road towards Cusco- making it 40km or so before my rear tyre burst. Fortunately, this happened in a small village- I was generously offered shelter from the rain, and a floor to sleep on.

Somehow, the tube on my rear wheel was forcing it’s way through the holes on the inner wall of the rim and consequently bursting – in spite of the rim tape intended to prevent this. I shored it up as best I could with more tape, patched the tube, and pressed on to Andahuaylas.

I had a decision to make there- I had to meet Olivia in Calama (Chile) on 01-Dec; there was nothing like enough time to cycle all the way there. I decided that I would skip ahead by way of public transport to Tacna, on the Peruano side of the frontier- that way I’d still get to cycle the Atacama desert, and if I continued to have problems, I could still hitch and make it on time. The mountains and high grasslands of the Peruano Andes are a beautiful and excellent place to cycle, though it can be hard to estimate how long a distance might take- both as a consequence of terrain and remoteness.

The bus that took me from the Peruano central highlands down to the coast passed several cyclists on the way, presumably also bound for Chile. Even the main road isn’t particularly busy. It’s rugged and beautiful. Unforseen problems caused me to miss too much of Perú – I’ll go back and cycle it one day, perhaps on my way to Macchu Picchu.

Perhaps Tacna is a lively, bustling town- but at dawn, it isn’t. I cycled out into the desert, and towards the border. I had seven days to cover the 650km to Calama.

(Images linked to from the text of this article are property of Kurt or Cass respectively; cheekily linked to with no permission whatsoever)

Having witnessed the seemingly endless deserts around Nazca both on the bus and from the air, I elected to follow a different road- striking out eastward from Lima on the Carretera Central.
The road climbs smoothly but relentlessly – a long grind back up to almost 5000m.

The first day out I was passed by many lycra warriors – serious faces and lightweight bikes. Almost to a man, they cheered me on as they zoomed past in the opposite direction a little later.

Fernando -a fellow cyclist living close to a place where I was again repairing a puncture- offered his garden as a place to camp, fed me, gave me advice about the road ahead, and even gave me a Peruano flag to display (though I think it would take more than that for me to be mistaken for a local).

It took longer than it perhaps should have done to climb all the way – as impressive as the scenery was the railway woven into the landscape. Many switchbacks and bridges- in some places the track disappears into tunnels at both ends of a bridge.
At long last I climbed into the clouds and the highest point – Ticlio at 4818m. Minimal visibility, freezing rain, and rarified air. It didn’t take long to roll down to La Oroya. There are two huge mines on the way- Copper, gold, and molybdenum amongst other things. La Oroya is filled with people from all corners of the globe- many of them in overalls, high-vis jackets, and steel capped boots. The central highlands are home to both natural wonders and heavy industry on a large scale.

A gentle descent (for the most part) over the next 125km to Huancayo – the rain at least wasn’t frozen. I was flagged down a short distance outside Huancayo by Karim, a lawyer for one of the mines, and once again offered a place to stay. I ended up staying several days- visiting nearby lagunas, a trout farm (local trout is .. excellent), the bustling markets of Huancayo, and going dancing at Wanka Wanka. As ever, I am humbled by the generosity of people offering hospitality to cyclists they find on the road in the middle of nowhere.

The line from Lima to Ticlio doesn’t carry passenger services – but it is possible to catch a train from Huancayo to Huancavelica. A different way to that which I was intending, but I promised myself I’d catch an Andino train at least once. Six hours and ~120km later, we rolled into Huancavelica. It’s a tough business watching the scenery roll by, and not so keen to head out into the rain on an empty stomach, I looked for somewhere to sleep. I wandered into the first likely looking place only to find Cass Gilbert (last seen in Huaraz) and Dirt Kurt (last seen in Tumbaco, Ecuador)..

Back in the desert.. my gps implored me to follow the PanAm all the way to Lima, but I ignored both that and the sign forbidding bicycles on the Serpentín de Pasamayo.
Steep sandy slopes on both sides- disappearing into the mist above to my left, and meeting the Pacific below to the right.
Eventually the bleakness gave way to more traffic, population, and the sprawling city that is Lima. Not knowing how to contact Aunt Lucy, I braved the chaotic streets to the south of the city where Cally had kindly agreed to put me up.

Not being sure if I’d cycle that way, I left my bike in Lima and got a bus to Nazca- not the prettiest town, but a good place to catch a flight over the Nazca Lines. It’s easy to understand why flying early in the day is recommended- even in (relatively) calm air, the flight wasn’t smooth.
Harder to fathom is what might have been the intention of those who constructed the geoglyphs. Whatever the reason, the desert floor is an incredible canvas- the scale and precision is impressive to say the least.
(Photos are on my other camera- I haven’t found a computer capable of extracting them yet)

I stopped off in Ica on the way back to Lima- the whole town partied all night, literally painting the streets. An ostensibly Christian celebration, though I suspect with rather more ancient and local roots.

Cycling uphill on an unfinished surface into fierce headwind with freezing rain and hailstones – I’d had enough by the early afternoon, and pitched my tent so I could dry off and warm up. I hadn’t yet reached 4000m.

..A short distance south of Huarez, a gravel road climbs eastward along the northern side of mount Pastoruri, all the way across the Huascarán national park – it seemed worth crack to go the long way round the mountain.

The kids from the farm on the other side of the road were, I think, both amused by and curious of the stranger with his flimsy tent and bicycle. Jamie (11) introduced himself and shook my hand with great seriousness, and was very skeptical that my tent was a sensible place to sleep.

The following day was bright and warm, so I was able to dry of my wet gear before carrying on. The road eventually climbed up past 4800m – hard work. I camped again at 4600m – apart from slowing progress a little, I didn’t suffer particularly from the effect of altitude though I didn’t sleep especially well. Water boils at 85ºC at that height, which doesn’t do much for the tastiness of tea.

The road undulates between 4600 and 4800m for a while, affording spectacular views of the ice-covered peaks of the Cordillera Blanca and other parts of the Andes. The weather is also very changeable and sometimes severe- repairing a pinch-flat while being pelted by hailstones in a strong wind was a test of patience.

(Less than 24 hours later and more than 3000m lower down, I found myself again fixing a puncture- the tarmac all but too hot to sit on..)

I encountered Patrice and Véronique headed in the other direction in their pickup truck/camper; I was a little jealous of their relatively effortless climbing and indoor warmth at the time- I’m not sure my cheerfulness was especially convincing..

Eventually the road met with the main (tarmac!) road that skirts the east and south of the Huascarán national park- dizzying hairpin descents in both directions. I turned right, and freewheeled down to the small mining town of Pachapaqui where I found a bed, an excellent hot shower, and the most terrifying outdoor cludgie yet.

The following day was more climbing, back across the ridge I had just descended from – across the broad flat plain that is home to the Laguna and town of Conococha. From there, the road descends .. a very long way.
I found myself racing the sunset along the PanAm once again, each breath of warm sea level air affording strength and speed I’d all but forgotten about.

A brief jolly to the Laguna Parón, in the Cordillera Blanca. The surface of the water is ~4100m.

A few days in Trujillo afforded time to rest, eat, and even visit the sprawling ruins of Chan Chan – the largest adobe city in the world, and capital of the Chimú kingdom.

I left Lucho’s fantastic Casa de Ciclistas in Trujillo with Eva and Jan – we headed south along the PanAm highway .. before turning inland along the gravel and baked mud road that heads for the northern bank of the Rio Santa. The road climbs gently away from the Pacific – the wind is still persistent, but in a friendlier direction. 50km later there is a bridge over to the main road and a few kilometres of blissful tarmac before the tiny town of Chuquicara. The local police were kind enough to allow us to camp next door.

We followed the road roughly east from there – again leaving behind the tarmac behind following the course of the river – winding gently back up into the Andes. My bicycle isn’t hugely suited to such rough roads– tyres not so much a problem as there isn’t so much deep sand, but lacking suspension made progress quite hard work. A farmer kindly let us camp in the porch of one of his buildings, and enjoy the spectacular views from his entirely out-of-doors facilities.

I wasn’t feeling excellent, so overnighted in Huallanca (only a little further on) while the others pushed on to Caráz. A good sleep, many litres of water and some good food put me back on form.

The road climbs away from there, but continues along the course of the Rio Santa along the Cañon del Pato (‘Duck Canyon’) .. the canyon that divides the Cordillera Blanca and the Cordillera Negra.
Squeezed into the narrow space the canyon is also home to a dam that controls water flowing to the hydroelectric plant at Huallanca. The flow to the plant is not by way of the river, but through an 11km long tunnel- evidently the river is but a shadow of what it once was.

My route to Caráz passed through 35 single lane tunnels- most are reasably short, but a few were long enough that I was glad of powerful lights. The lorries and pickups that form most of the other traffic on the road are careful enough, though the few coaches that there are tend to prefer their horn to their brakes. At one point in the middle of perhaps the longest tunnel, I buried my front wheel in a sand-filled pothole – I turned turtle in undignified fashion, the dusty air of the tunnel turning slightly blue.. there wasn’t any traffic though, and no damage done.

The snowline is around 5000m here(Caráz); many of the surrounding peaks are a great deal higher than that.
Tomorrow I head for Huaraz and the cooler air above 3000m.

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