Puna Dreams Pt.3: Rolling with the punches

Know your limits‘, along with ‘get on your bike and ride it‘ were two among many phrases that colored my student years. How was I to know then how significant the bike comment would become and just how pertinent knowing my limits would be in this (slightly) later stage of life. Roaming the raves of the early 2000’s it was always amusing to see people out of their tree and giggle about them not knowing their limits. They were silly and we were silly. Now, however, what was then an off the cuff catchphrase has become particularly germane. Knowing what I’m capable of, what I enjoy and where fun tips into endurance have become vital in maintaining a passion for bicycle adventure. After all, if you don’t know where you limits are, how can you push them?


Directly behind the cross lies the tough route over to Fiambala, around to the left (out of shot) skirts the longer but considerably easier way

 Climbing away from the Salar de Arizaro on my second day out from Tolar Grande something went twang in the back of my left leg. Unused to hauling 15kg of water my body had decided it didn’t want to play ball with the rough road. Still, a few checks and I figured it was nothing major mechanical and plugged on with pain but no worry to Antofagasta de la Sierra. There I took three unscheduled days off to give that injury a chance to recover. From Antofagasta I harbored ambitious plans to ride directly to Fiambala and even flirted with the idea of a route directly up to Paso San Francisco. This final third of Project Puna excited and scared me. I knew from my research that things looked tough and sandy and figured I’d have to carry four maybe five days of water. An intimidating prospect but one I knew I was capable of enjoying. Fate had other ideas.


One of the distinct advantages of riding pavement is that you get to put your head up and look around… descending from Portezuelo de Pasto Ventura (3,996m)

Those three days inactivity in Antofagasta de la Sierra cost me the remainder of the Argentine pesos I’d changed in San Pedro de Atacama. I’d expected to be using them in Fiambala for a few nights rest before heading up over Paso San Francisco. With the blue market dollar changing guy out of town and an empty ATM I had no choice but to get back on my bike. I left Antofagasta with 9 pesos to my name, pain in my leg and a budding chest infection. I was to ride to El Peñón, fill up with water and then back track to the start of my planned route. The 61km to El Peñón were easy but I knew in my heart that trying to force my ailing frame on that direct route over to Fiambala would be beyond sense. It would be pushing my limits in the wrong way. So with more than a little despondency I opted to take one of my pre-planned evacuation routes and flaked off out of the Puna de Atacama. Riding predominantly paved roads I cruised down to Belen the easy way before cresting the Cuesta de Zapata on my way to Fiambala.

Antofagasta to Fiambala Route Map

Route from Antofagasta de la Sierra to Fiambala via Belen and Cuesta de Zapata… click here to view the fully interactive map, elevation profile and download the GPX track

Antofagasta de la Sierra to Fiambala Route elevation profile

Once I got back onto the main roads it astonished my how fast I could move. In two and half days I made the 268km down to Belen where I stopped up for a week to let my various ailments recover. From Belen I then opted for the 134.5km dirt route over Cuesta de Zapata to Tinogasta and then on to Fiambala. Here is the story of my temporary escape from the Puna de Atacama…


Coughing and spluttering my way out of Antofagasta de la Sierra, El Peñón looks a long way away


Immediately out of town I’m greeted by a stark volcanic landscape…


… that soon evolves into much more Punaesque shapes…


… and colours


A thin strip of asphalt delivers me down towards a salar…


… where I pass the junction to the direct Fiambala route and start to climb…


… the smooth pavement…


… to lunch overlooking El Peñón


Whilst filling up with water at the fancy hotel in El Peñón I make the final call on my route onward…


… electing to keep climbing up to Portezuelo de Pasto Ventura (3,996m) instead of returning to the more difficult route I’d planned to ride


As moody clouds gather around me…


… and I make swift progress up the paved road…


… I’m soon able to leave my disappointments behind and refocus on the new task at hand


Struggling into a powerful headwind up over Portezuelo de Pasto Ventura (3,996m) I start to wonder if I’ll ever find shelter to camp. Fortunately not far down the descent I find the small bit of shelter I need


The next morning all clouds have gone and the wind is working with me…


… I hardly have to push a pedal as it carries me up the days climb…


… onto a small plateau…


… and then down…


… past countless herds of vicuña…


… onto about 20 km of rare flat riding


Not usually a fan of riding pavement I find peace with the hard top…


… as it lays a smooth slither through the rough surroundings


As I quickly lose altitude the landscape flicks through phases…


…. of enormous sand dunes…


… and harsh crags…


… before settling into verdant hues I’ve not witnessed for weeks


Having now left the Puna de Atacama the world comes alive with smells and insects…


… the landscape now capturing drama in different ways


A few km through the village of Villa Vil I melt off the road into camp. As I go through my routines huge dense clouds drift up the valley…


… and stay into the next day. The exquisite blues of the Puna sky replaced by the chilling spread of a sandstorm


The wind is cold and strong and the ambiance miserable as I speed down to El Eje…


… and the dreaded Ruta 40. This road stretches all the way down to Tierra del Fuego and is a popular route for cyclists. They must be bloody mad! I manage 48 km and want to kill myself


The only semi enjoyable stretch being through an enticing gorge close to Belen


This part of the world goes to sleep in the hot afternoons so my arrival at lunch time on a Sunday is into a virtual ghost town


In order to give my chest and leg a little time for recovery I stay a week in Belen. These little snatched periods in backwater towns are one of the beauties of travel. I find a rhythm to my days, visiting the same cafe in the mornings, buying my bread from the same lady every lunch time and generally making new friends


Having arrived in Belen in a sandstorm on a Sunday I enjoy a week of clear weather before leaving Belen in a sandstorm on a Sunday. After enduring another 20 km of Ruta 40 I get to slip back onto the good stuff


I have the entire road to myself as it climbs through stifling heat…


… and clouds of flies…


… up to the dizzying heights of Cuesta de Zapata (1,875m)


From the high point it’s a rough…


… and often fun descent…


… down to a downright miserable camp. It’s bloody hot and I’m swarmed with flies in the evening and morning. This camp confirms that I definitely belong in cooler climes and higher places


Having survived the night I’m left just a short burst down into the town of Tinogasta. In the town square they have this sign proclaiming the Falkland Islands to be Argentinian. This kind of nationalistic propaganda makes me sick. I don’t give two hoots who has sovereignty over these islands but really dislike it when governments try to spoon feed opinion to their people. These signs are everywhere and part of the reason why I shall be taking my tour south through Chile and not Argentina


Having successfully located the cold Coke and cake I’d been lusting after in Tinogasta I hop on the Ruta 60 towards Fiambala


A straight forward and not unpleasant spin up the highway…


… takes me closer and closer to my return to the Puna


Arriving in Fiambala just after lunch I settle in and make preparations for the next leg of my journey. The next day I will start my climb over Paso San Francisco and back into my beloved Puna de Atacama

Route Tips

4.5 days, 402.5 km (250 miles), 2,990 m (9,810 ft.) of climbing

This was undoubtedly the easy option for me but still quite enjoyable. Pretty much the entire route from Antofagasta de la Sierra to Belen is paved, with only the headwinds of the upper reaches of Portezuelo de Pasto Ventura (3,996m) offering any kind of challenge. Travelling south this marks a descent down out of the Puna. Route notes and any other relevant information can be found on Neil and Harriet Pikes Andes By Bike website here. They chart a route that runs 440.4 km south from Salar de Pocitos (3,700m), through Antofagasta de la Sierra (3,400m) to El Eje (1,780m) where the Ruta 40 runs 48 km to Belen.

I’d recommend staying in Hostal Belen in Belen. Run by a lovely family and only 70 pesos a night, if you bag the big front room it’s a nice place to relax. There is WiFi in the hostal but it is slow. In fact internet is universally very slow in the town, even at the internet cafe. If you ask around you’ll find the excellent zapateria who resurrected my cycling shoes (he has no shop but operates from one of the streets by the big hotel). It is possible to get good rates on changing US$ but again you’ll have to ask around (I don’t want to detail here because it is illegal).

The route from Belen through Londres, over Cuesta de Zapata (1,875 m) to Tinogasta and then up the Ruta 60 to Fiambala is also detailed by the Pikes here. This is a fun little trundle but not without its challenges. The condition of the road on the first half of the dirt section of the ride is quite poor. High temperatures and a lot of flies once I’d descended the Cuesta made some sections of the ride a little arduous.

Fiambala is a relaxing little town that comes alive in the evenings and mornings. I spent my one night there in the comfortable San Pedro Hostel. There is free WiFi in the town plaza but it is a bit sketchy. You’ll be able to resupply with food from the many mini markets about town.


2 responses to “Puna Dreams Pt.3: Rolling with the punches

  1. Think about you often, Nate. So glad to hear that you are once again doing well, and still on the bike! Take care. Love the pictures.

  2. More epicness! Good choice to bail to avoid a more serious injury, always tough. Glad to hear your heading back to Puna! I’m so envious and looking forward to getting down there!

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