The huge descent down 3,950 metres to Copiapo at the end of this route marked the closing of an era. Having been at altitude for the best part of the last year I am now at a lowly 391 metres above sea level and preparing for a new and very different chapter of this tour. But it wasn’t all down hill to get here, I had to go up to go down. To cross back into Chile from Argentina I scaled Paso San Francisco which at 4,726 metres doubles as the international boundary. Reaching the border from Fiambala down at 1,500 metres on the Argentinean side involved a solid three day climb up a cumulative total of 3,820 vertical metres. It may come as no surprise to discover that this represents the largest climb of my tour by some distance. This route also involved some of the toughest riding of the tour. Two facts that are however barely related. It was not the climbing that challenged, I love a good old climb, it was the appearance of some incredible Puna head winds.
Considering the nature of the routes I like to ride it may come as news to some that I am not really motivated by challenges. I never ever set out on a route viewing it as a challenge, I always know it is within my ability and I will enjoy it. When planning for this last few days of riding over Paso San Francisco back into Chile I never once considered it anything more than ‘just popping over the border’. It never entered my head until just now that it involved riding up and over the Andes range.
I think that if you feel the need to blatantly challenge yourself then you must have something to prove to either yourself or to others. I don’t get that. Why step beyond your comfort zone for the simple reasons of competition, ego and reputation. That is surely vanity. If you need a challenge to feel good about yourself then more power to you, I don’t feel I do. What motivates me is entirely different, I am driven by the power of experience. I derive such intense enjoyment from the moments of riding tougher routes that given the choice I would always stick to them. The actual act of going through a challenge is often not fun, it is the feeling of success which is enjoyable. I am not sure it would be possible to sustain a five year bike tour with that approach and think there are easier ways to feel good about yourself. There is no success or failure in the routes I ride, just decisions and experience. However, even if you are not motivated by challenge there are times when you find yourself under its thumb. I just rode a six day route of which at least a sum total of two days were incredibly bloody challenging.
During the past few weeks that I have been pootling around the Puna de Atacama I’ve become all too familiar with the incredible strength of the regions winds. They’ve added an edge to the riding but only really presented difficulties when it has come to finding a camp spot. That changed on this route where the wind came to dominate everything. With the prevailing wind travelling eastwards I have pretty much just spent six days riding into a headwind. It was just annoying to start with but then on the final 22 km and 727 metres climbing, when I was stocked up with two and a half days of water, it became a different animal all together. Relentless, savage, all invasive and downright effing strong, the head wind I experienced on that third afternoon was unlike anything I have even considered before. At times I could hardly move the pedals as this invisible monster pushed and pushed against me. But I kept on going, put my head down and made it up the pass. That monster returned the next day to haunt me through the entire days riding. Challenging me to make it to the next water stop and trying its hardest to break me. Then the monster slept for a while before returning to try and stop me enjoying the final 80 km down to Copiapo.
It is not often that I find riding challenging. I love to ride and am usually flowing so hard on the bike that nothing is a challenge as such, it’s just fun. My usual attitude is that if something is unenjoyably hard then you must be doing it wrong. However those hours spent slowly grinding out kilometers from a gruelling headwind were most definitely challenging. I know this because I cannot say that they were particularly fun, they were more akin to survival. When you are riding somewhere like the Puna where you’re carrying your own water and have personal responsibility to reach the next water source, you cannot just give up or retreat to the tent, there is distance to be made. And through sheer bloody mindedness I made those distances and generally enjoyed the route. But the stress left me tired and in some senses wondering why I had bothered.
This is all insightful to me as it helps me understand myself and motivations. I am not scared of giving in and do not see taking a bus or ending a tour as failure in any way whatsoever. But something keeps me riding. I’m about to embark on a long ride down the Pan American highway which on the surface contradicts everything I stand for as a bicycle tourist, but I would rather ride those miles than bus them. I shall adapt to the different way of riding and I know I will enjoy myself in some manner. What I cannot understand though is why? Why did I keep going when the wind had taken from me the reason why I ride, which is to have fun? And why am I about to spend days riding roads I outwardly despise?
I know one thing for sure and that is my contempt for fair-weather cyclists. Bike touring is not just for Christmas, if you embark on a tour you are making a commitment of sorts. The great times are so intense and magical that surely you have to earn them somewhere along the road. There has to be some balance and context, some kind of bike karma balance. What goes up must eventually come down to go up again. I also have a hunch that my motivation may spring from a deep-seated desire for purpose. As long as I am on the bike I have purpose and direction. You take that away from me and I have nothing. I am nothing and I fear I’ll feel nothing. On the strength of this reintegration into post-tour ‘normal’ life looks like it might be a real, genuine and frightening challenge.
The Puna de Atacama has proven one of my favorite areas of the Americas to explore and cycle. I am in love with its colours, feeling and the rhythms it brings to days and weeks on the bike. So it is with a heavy heart that I leave it for the last time. Here is the story of my ride up over Paso San Francisco and final foray in the Puna…
6 days, 494 km (307 miles), 5,420 m (17,780 ft.) of climbing
Route notes for riding Paso San Francisco can be found on Neil and Harriet Pikes Andes By Bike website here. They detail a longer route that runs 761.2 km from Fiambala over Paso San Francisco then back over Abra Pircas Negras to Villa Union (Argentina). Cycling in December I was unable to ride that entire route as the immigration facilities on Abra Pircas Negras are only open for the months of January and February. Although I wasn’t aware of them until I’d completed the ride, Steve Fabes notes on the section from the Salar de Maricunga to Copiapo can be found here.
As you would expect from an ascent over the Andes there is a sizable amount of climbing involved in this route. However the gradients and road conditions are usually kind so under favorable conditions it should be quite simple. My recommendation would be to ride east from Chile to Argentina as that is the direction the prevailing wind moves. These winds are extreme and easily the biggest challenge of the route. I have never encountered such strong and constant wind before. The head winds I experienced for the final 20 km up to Paso San Francisco and the subsequent 50 km were so strong I was sometimes unable to move into them. I experienced headwinds on a lot of the rest of the route but they were much more rideable. So if riding west expect a bit of a grind.
Once you cross over Paso San Francisco into Chile you are officially in the Puna de Atacama.
Aside from the hospedaje in Las Grutas and a small cafe on the corner of the left turn onto a larger road 27 km out from Copiapo, there are no services on this route. Both Fiambala on the Argentine side and Copiapo on the Chilean side have all the stores you’ll need to stock up with the 6 (or maybe 7) days food required. Be aware of the regulations on taking various food stuffs into Chile.
Water is available from streams all the way up to Refugio 4 (3,720m). After this it is also possible to stock up from the hospedaje in Las Grutas. From Las Grutas there is no drinkable source until the immigration facilities in Maricunga. It may be possible to get water from the Carabineros 19.5kms from Paso San Francisco on the Chilean side but that post was not manned when I rode through so I wouldn’t consider it reliable. Therefore you need to stock up in Las Grutas for two days riding and two nights camping. Seeing as that leaves the tough final 22 km up to the pass to be ridden with maximum water weight it might be prudent to stay in Las Grutas so you only have to take water enough for one night up to the pass.
There is a huge amount of altitude gain on this route. With the main pass at 4,726m riders should ensure they are fully acclimatized to the altitude. It may help to climb slowly over 4 days. Once over Paso San Francisco the route stays high for a while and if you get the winds is very tough. It is also advisable that you figure out a game plan before setting out on the route. The six refugios on the Argentine side are amazingly useful and a good facility to base your plans around. With all the climbing involved it would help to know if you are planning a 6 or 7 days ride in order to carry only the amount of food you need.
The Pikes notes detail the position of the six Argentine refugios. These have no facilities (save for rubbish bins) but are invaluable shelters from the wind and insects. They look to be frequently used but I never had to share the space and I doubt you would either.
To help you plan your trip here are the statistics from my three days riding:
- Day 1 – Fiambala to Refugio 1 – 55.2 km in 5:25, climbing 1,410m and descending 10m
- Day 2 – Refugio 1 to Refugio 4 – 81.7 km in 5:32, climbing 935m and descending 200m
- Day 3 – Refugio 4 to Refugio 6 (on Paso San Francisco) – 67.1 km in 8:00, climbing 1,475 and descending 455m
- Day 4 – Refugio 6 to Culvert camp – 54 km in 7:00, climbing 810m and descending 1,085m
- Day 5 – Culvert camp to camp after Cuesta Codoceo – 91.8 km in 7:00, climbing 735m and descending 1,575m
- Day 6 – Camp to Copiapo – 144 km in 7:00, climbing 55m and descending 3,300m
- The climb from Fiambala to Paso San Francsico took three days (19 hours riding time), covering 204 km, climbing 3,820m and descending 665m