Thursday, 11 January 2007

Across the Andes to Chile

Wow. Where to begin, and what to say... We are now in San Pedro de Atacama in Northern Chile, a very fun, but horribly pricey place where we are recuperating from the last few days of cycling across the Andes.

The maps here being terrible, we didn´t really know how much climbing was in store for us, or at least I didn´t! And maybe that was a good thing in hindsight. Our first climb out of Purmamarca took us to 4,170 metres and was a slog, but a great sense of achievement - especially as I was carrying 11 litres of water in addition to my small library of books, tent, hiking stuff, and the like. Travelling light?! Er, no... but we made it and the views as we descended were breathtaking. I didn´t realise that rocks could come in so many different colours, and catch the light in so many ways. And shimmering in the distance as the sun caught them were the salt flats next to which we camped, watching the violent electrical storms on the other side, hoping they didn´t come any closer...

The next day we traversed the salt flats (why did we always have a headwind?!), to overnight in a dustbowl called Susques which promptly turned into a mudbath as the heavens opened on us. Too tired to really eat, we stocked up on supplies at their one "shop", and prepared for the last leg to Chile - over the Pasa de Jamas, what we thought was the highest point...

The three days it took us were very hard, but extremely rewarding. The scenery as we reached the tops of passes and descended into valleys of red and pink sand dunes with funky rock formations, traversed areas of high altiplano and puna with grazing vecunas and huge salt flats shimmering in the sun with their resident flamingos, the whole lot ringed with massive snow-capped mountains and monstrous volcanoes was just undescribably beautiful. We´d suffer up the numerous climbs, but then turn the corner to see a view so stunning that I didn´t know whether to cry or shout with joy at having the opportunity to see it. The pain and deprivation (intense headaches from the altitude, camping in a wet, oily generator shed next to the Argentinian border, and living off stale, tasteless bread and pasta with tomato paste for three days, to name just a few...), so all-enconsuming just minutes before, would vanish instantly as the views unfolded. I just wish I had the words to convey what I saw, nothing seems adequate!

San Pedro is like a dream for a tired cyclist - a lovely, relaxed hostel, great food, and nothing much to do except wash everything, eat steak, drink wine and relax! The headaches, headwinds and endless 4,800 metre passes are quickly fading into hazy memories. Tomorrow we head North into Bolivia and up to Uyuni across the famous salt flats. Back up to over 4,000 metres, and this time, none of the roads will be paved... hopefully the headaches won´t be so intense this time!


Clare said...

I am so jealous! The pics look awesome, it sounds like you are having fun, and not a computer in sight. Lovely. Although I don't envy the headaches. I managed to avoid those in Bhutan but only by going REALLY slowly, on foot! Have you had to get off and push yet? Look forward to reading more soon,
Clare xx

Unknown said...

Your story is amazing, the photos look so great and all I want to do is to pack my bags and fly over with the first available plane. :)
Good luck,
talk soon

Unknown said...

Stupendous -4800 pass is pretty high up. Can you post your route on a map.

Kate said...

Helen you rock! Way to climb high, 4800m is no joke! I am so envious of even your high altitude headaches right now - give me that over term paper purgatory and the associated headaches any day =) What an adventure, what a challenge!! Keep updating and happy trails...