Chile/Argentina: San Pedro de Atacama to Olacapato

We escape from New Year in San Pedro to get some sleep and head into the country we’ve been telling people that we’re going to all this time (will have to think of something else now…).  Argentina is to be reached by heading through the Paso Sico, not the paved and truck riddled Paso Jama. Or even the Paso Huaytiquina, which as the smaller road on the map was my first thought.  Given the descriptions we have of Paso Sico it sounds great and we don’t feel the need to make it any harder by going the even remoter way.  Later, coming to Catúa where Sico and Huaytiquina meet, there’s a bright yellow sign saying the the latter pass is closed as it is a mined and so really wouldn’t have been a good idea!

After a hot, dry run from San Pedro past the Salar de Atacama where we camp with the tent open to the stars the weather begins. We stop for a sheltered lunch in amongst boulders just beyond the Salar de Aguas Calientes and watch lightning encircle us
A little while later, still dry, we pass Lago Tuyaito
Then passing some potentially sheltered camping 15km before the El Laco mining camp, the weather hits. Hood drawn tight restricting my view we grind slowly onwards - too early to camp. I'm glad I can't see the lightning as the thunder rattles me and I am cold-soaked

We’re riding this route with the most detailed directions we’ve had since the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route in Canadá/USA.  Thankfully they promise shelter and we count down the metres both up and on.  Something to aim for keeps us going.

Beds, a warm kitchen, plentiful white plastic bread and even fitful internet are wonderfully and unhesitatingly offered at the El Laco mining camp. Just as well, because shortly after we squeeze our bikes through the door, the snow begins. The next morning we scrunch around in the half-light post-dawn and try to decide to leave our haven
Mario and his mate salute us as we leave - probably expecting us back before too long. They're alone minding the mine - not much to do other than gleefully email photos of falling snow-flakes to their boss and sweep them once-fallen from their somewhat leaky roof
Within minutes cloud settles around us - we keep close, and pause for clothing adjustments
The wind shifts the blanketed silence enough to see Cairngorm-like surrounds
Over the Paso El Laco towards the lonely Chilean quarantine post the snow turns to mud - joy!
Now that the rains have begun - 'Bolivian' weather as the El Laco boys tell us - the roads turn to thick energy sapping clag at just the wrong moments
Nearing the border crossing into Argentina, our 14th country, Sarah checks on her friends - travelling safe and snug :-)

Not long after Catúa I spot the tracks of another cyclist criss-crossed by the Policia.  He’s pushed a few sections where last night’s rain is draining in a wide muddy swathe down the road.  We catch him just short of the Abra Arizado with his kit splashed over the bushes drying.  Our normal excitement at meeting is quickly dampened as no connection is made.  He’s interested in my bike and brakes as he’s also riding a long-bike.  A Giant-based Xtracycle – same brakes.  Uncertain whether language is the barrier – he’s French and speaks German to me first.  It seems that his English is better than his Spanish, so I stumble on in the former.  He’s remote and disinterested.  When asked where he’s heading he reels off a mechanical list of place names with his gaze lifted into the distance over my shoulder.  Maybe not language, but something else.  His front panniers are worn-ancient and gape holes.  He’s lost some things from it and I offer to speedy-stitcher repair them – again it seems too much for him.  A sadness for both of us.

Heavily laden, but surprisingly fast on the downhill stretches, our non-companion Xtracycles on.
We ride-push-grunt-moan across the sodden Salar de Cauchari in varying relation to the Frenchman - un-synchronised.

Our plan-line is to continue south at Cauchari, only a junction now with some semi-intact adobe houses.  Salt-drenched bike-part damage forces a complicated side-trip to Salta.  No compunction in engaging alternative transport methods off route we aim for Olacapato.  Our other problem is self-induced.  We don’t have any Argentinian currency – a laxity brought on by so many wad-touting change men at so many central and south american borders.  Not this one, so we opt to consult the police (and yet again are offered so much more).

After explaining our lack of ready money, we are astonished to be offered a floor to camp on, internet and help getting towards Salta. The station has the whole range of facilities - including a wide-format typewriter!
Ricardo and Rosana only stop their 4WD in Olacapato to pick up some fuel from the Policia. Experienced travellers they spirit us all the way to Salta through some challenging rain-drenched roads. ¡Muchisimas Gracias por todo!


  1. OMG! I don’t know what to say to this most recent post…….so I’ll say the same again, what a freaking adventure! So many twists and turns and yet you guys somehow figure out a solution!!!!!! How do you do it?? xoxoxoxo cin

  2. Cindi – one thing leads to another and it is a continued wonder to us that it seems to work out! It gets a bit dispiriting when the weather’s mostly awful for several days in a row – our resolve tends to waver a bit at that point. On this route the pikesonbikes information we had extends to us knowing that the El Laco mine camp would be happy to put us up, but not that the Olacapato policia would be so generous, or that our lift would take us all the way to Salta….. It’s amazing what a difference it makes if we are able to pack a dry(ish) tent in the morning – it adds a whole degree of security to the day and whatever it may bring. Functional bikes help too!
    Muchos Brazos a ustedes y tengan un buen dia!
    Tom xxx xxx xxx

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