12/11/19 – 12/17/19
From the old mission church near the end of the Ruta de las Vicuñas the road drops over a thousand meters to the town of Colchane. Much of it runs through a narrow canyon filled with alpaca munching on wet grasses and vizcachas, a desert rodent the size of a rabbit, chasing each other up and down cliff walls.
Colchane doesn’t have much for supplies beyond candy bars, but the owner of our hotel was making a run to the city and let us put an order in for some more substantial food. We took advantage of the day off to do some maintenance on the bikes.
One kilometer outside of town the next day, Soph got her first flat. She refused to count it because it was due to a stress tear around the valve stem as opposed to a puncture. I quickly changed it and we kept moving.
The road climbs from town, passes a few settlements, then turns to dirt. There is rain ahead. It appears to be concentrated around a few peaks. As we keep going, it slowly moves our way. My stomach started to cramp so we decided it might be wise to make camp. While Soph put the tent up I dug a small hole behind a large rock. There was thunder not so far away. I was sitting with my back against the boulder filling my little hole with the previous day's pasta and hoping I could get sorted as droplets of sleet began to hit my forehead.
It drizzled a bit, but not terribly. I got dinner going. It was early. I brought the lentils to a boil, turned the stove off, and left them to sit and soak up the water while we took shelter in the tent. The wind and rain got worse as did the thunder. Eventually it let up a bit after some sleet. We went outside and ate. Two large trucks rolled past and the sun poked out just enough to warm up a bit. The wind died and we got that desert stillness.
It’s hard not to fall in love with the desert. You feel like you’re the only one in the world. Even when there is someone right there next to you. We both try to breathe as quietly as possible to enjoy the stillness. There was a slight fog which seemed to amplify the near full moon. It was cold. There were small earthquakes throughout the night. They’re so subtle that you can’t really tell when they end and you get to the point in which you always suspect the earth is vibrating and shifting, almost imperceptibly. The air was thin and we didn’t sleep well.
Paso Picavilque was the tallest pass we would encounter on this stretch at 5,083 meters (16,675 ft). After watching the previous day’s storms materialize around it I wanted to get an early start. Instead we avoided getting out of our sleeping bag, which was covered in frost, and didn’t get on the road until nine thirty.
Instantly felt the previous day’s climbing in my quads. Breathing gets harder and harder. Great views, well graded road. Eventually we can see a saddle between two peaks. The road passes through it. The peak on the right is covered in rain. The one on the left, snow. Thunder and lightning on both sides. Saddle is clear though. Based on yesterday's storms, we assumed we would get lucky with a clear pass. Eight kilometers from the top we got a nice chunk of downhill and I put my sweater on. As soon as the climbing resumed I was overheating and stopped to take it off and deflate my rear tire because it kept sliding in the sand. Soph got a bit ahead and I tried to push hard to catch up, but I couldn't take in enough oxygen. I lost the view of the saddle around a curve. When I got it back it was clear that the storms were converging right where we would cross. Soph stopped two kilometers from the top and I pulled in behind her. The wind had picked up and it was starting to hail. We put warmer clothes and our rain gear on and kept moving.
"There's an abandoned truck over there, maybe we should take cover."
"I don't know," I hesitated.
"It's dropped half an inch in twenty minutes, if it stays like this we could get snowed in."
We agreed the safest thing to do was push for the top and hope we could roll to clearer skies on the other side. We hit a steep slippery patch and had to push the bikes. I wouldn't say I was nervous at this point, but I'd resolved to have a fairly miserable day.
Then I heard a humming behind us.
"Flag it down."
I waved to the driver and he waved back, but didn't slow down. We jumped up and down yelling and he finally stopped.
"Tienes espacio para 2 mas?"
"Si, por su puesto."
We frantically tossed the bikes in the back and jumped in. Daniel offered us some Andean popcorn, which is about the size of a golf ball. In the time it took to load our gear, another quarter inch had fallen and the truck slid back a few feet before the tires finally bit the dirt and we lurched forward.
As we passed the high point and dropped to the other side it became clear that we'd made the right choice. The road was steep and the south side had been hit harder with sleet that lasted for the next twenty kilometers. Managing the tight downhill turns which dropped off for several hundred feet would have been a nightmare.
As we hit the desert at the bottom the storm continued to drop down the slopes behind us. I was enjoying the conversation and Daniel really seemed to want to show us a fresh water spring near a salt flat, so we ended up taking that ride nearly 70 kilometers. He told us all about how to import cars from Europe to Chile and that the best sandwich in the country was in a nearby town called Pica. Bolivia wasn't far to our left and he pointed out the smuggling routes through the mountains.
It was horribly windy at the spring where he dropped us. There was a lone llama ranch not far away. We pulled in and gave a shout for the owner. His name was Pedro and he said we could camp there. We were on the west side of a large salt flat. I could see the storm from earlier dropping down the mountains and moving in our direction. Pedro said they always pass on the other side of the flats, and it did. We washed in the spring with some flamingos and made camp. I tried to feed some popcorn to a llama, but it spit on me.
We were still above four thousand meters and woke up late to another frigid morning. Back in Colchane I had removed our chains to clean them. When I tried to pop the pin back into mine I bent one of the links. For some reason as part of our spring cleaning in Quito I had apparently gotten rid of my spare bits of chain. I could have removed the link, and things probably would have been fine, but I was curious as to how long it would last. The answer was less than two hundred kilometers. This was just after we’d taken a leisurely lunch, which meant we ended up getting stuck in the afternoon wind.
We reached a Caribineros station around three o’clock. Sargent Toro came out to greet me as I was parking my bike. I told him we were looking for water and had some questions about the road ahead and he invited us in. They told us the condition was feo (ugly). There was a beautiful stretch of paved road, but it was owned by a mine and we couldn’t use it. No shelter for camping. No water. I asked if perhaps we could camp behind the station to get shelter from the wind. They chatted it over and then took us to the evidence room, which was empty, and told us we could sleep there.
After showering I went to cook dinner. Sebastion, one of the officers, insisted that we save our food and eat with them. They gave us the run down on what it is like chasing Bolivian smugglers through the desert. Chile subsidizes the price of cars, so taking them across the border to Bolivia is a popular hobby.
Everyone eats fast. Some people, like Sebastian, you can tell they are just there for the hazard pay. Others, like the captain, are there for the rush. As soon as he finishes eating he puts a bulletproof vest on, checks his pistol, and grabs his rifle. He is the youngest one in the group. He eats without chewing. An older man with a deep scar on his face moves a bit slower, not because of fear, just because he seemed to be tired of spending his nights riding in the back of a pickup truck while being shot at. Sebastian seemed happy that it was his night to do the dishes.
Behind the building were several dozen confiscated cars and eight semi-trucks.
“Drogas,” (drugs) one of them had said when I asked what was in them.
In the morning they again insist that we eat with them. As the sun rose, the night crew came in empty handed.
As protests have broken out across the country over the stark disparity between rich and poor, the Caribineros have been accused of responding in an overly heavy handed way. For us, this section of riding would have been nearly impossible due to the amount of water we would have needed to carry had we not been able to count on them. Unexpected was the incredible hospitality they had shown us. It was hard to reconcile this with the graffiti tagged over the police station in Arica accusing them of being assassins.
We pass a large lake with a massive discharge pipe coming from the mine in the distance. A strange white crust on top of the water. Shortly after we pass a military check point where we ask for water. The young soldiers invited us in, fed us lunch, and sent us off with a bag of fruit, twenty five granola bars, and six of those fancy military meals with the little radioactive tablet that cooks everything in ten minutes once activated by just a few drops of water. They also told us that the discharge lake from the mine used to have hundreds of flamingoes in it. Because of the white crust from the mine pollution, the lake resembled the salt flats that they feed from and they couldn’t tell the difference until it was too late.
Short climb to Yuma at 4400 meters. Abandoned railway town. Roofs of all the buildings collapsed and floors covered in rubble and scrubby desert bushes. We find one that can almost fit our tent if it weren't for the little spikey grass in the middle. I give it a little gas, set it ablaze, and pull it out. Soph set the tent up while I walked around following a granola wrapper that had escaped. The wind kept blowing it every time I got close. It landed in front of a sign which described the Sendero Chile, a six hundred mile Inca trail. From the looks of the map, we would cover the first 300 kilometers of it on our way to San Pedro.
At some point in the day my wheel starting rubbing against my front derailleur whenever I dropped into my climbing gear. As I parked my bike, I noticed a broken spoke. I would need to replace it in Ollague. Every week something breaks now. Part of me wants to just rebuild the whole wheel. My bike was probably as heavy as it had ever been with all the food and water and the last six hundred kilometers had been some of the worst roads we'd been on.
A mouse kept trying to sneak into our little building while we ate. Every time it appeared I threw a small rock at it. I left a small pile of popcorn and cookie crumbs in a different building hoping it would keep it away. It was the fattest mouse I'd ever seen. A coat like that of an alpaca. I was careful to put all our food in one pannier and move my bike away from the stone wall so it would be harder to reach.
We were in a 4400 meter pass. The wind blew all night, rare in the desert, but we were mostly protected.
We spent a good chunk of the next day pushing the bikes downhill through sand and rain. When the sand disappeared, the washboarding began. I was trying to take it easy on my broken wheel. After the washboards were the baby heads. At some point we saw what appeared to be a large grading vehicle coming our way. The path behind it though was worse than what we had been on . It was like riding over a parking curb every eight feet. Four kilometers before Ollague the road flattened out. We canvased town for a room so we could take a rest day and I could tend to my wheel.
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