‘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?
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.
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.
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…
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.