Cycling in the driest desert in the world

Trip Start Aug 11, 2010
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Trip End May 21, 2011


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Flag of Chile  ,
Friday, October 15, 2010

After a long 13 hour night bus ride, with a change at 6am, we arrived in San Pedro de Atacama. After dismissing one funky-smelling budget room, we found a lovely hostel down the road which was only charging about 2.50 more and it was infinitely better. Admittedly, the bedroom walls were decorated with concrete, but there was a hammock outside, a nice sunny patio and clean bathroom with a great shower (you come to really appreciate such things when they are far from guaranteed).

We walked around the small dusty town which is in an oasis in the middle of the Atacaman desert which is the driest desert in the world. The small white-washed houses and church were quite picturesque. It seems that this view was shared by many as the streets were mainly filled with tourists. We tried to find out about the myriad of options of tours and trips from visiting geysers, lagoons and the desert. We liked the sound of many but not the price and we were, by now, not so keen on going on tours. So we decided to do the only independent thing really available and hire bikes the next day.

Armed with a packed lunch, sunscreen and water, we set off on hired mountain bikes with a dodgy map. We visited the ruins of a 12th century fortress that was built by Atacaman people and pre-dated the Incas. It was quite interesting but only quite…. It was, after all, hot and the fortress was on a hill. The most interesting thing was the view from the top- we could see the green of the oasis and the surrounding desert and volcanoes. We then decided to head to the 'Valley of the Moon' in the desert. After accepting the fact that what looked like 1.5km on the map was actually 15km, we ploughed on and arrived at the visitor centre and bought tickets for the park. We were heartened by the fact that the lady did not look at us like we were crazy to be cycling in the middle of the day into a park in the desert, but instead was very helpful and gave us a useful map to make life easier.

The landscape either side of the road as we cycled into the ‘Valley of the Moon’ was really interesting. It was dry, cracked and peeling in places and then seemed to change to a sandy texture with stones on which looked like something you would imagine to be on the moon. Perhaps that is where they got the name from…. We arrived at our first stop on the map, tied our bikes up and walked into a canyon. The rock formations here were really unusual and were of a vivid brown colour (I didn’t think brown could be vivid but it can apparently). This walk took us through extremely narrow passageways in between the rock faces and, at some points, under them into complete darkness. It was great that we were the only people there (most tour groups go at sunset to escape the heat…) and it felt like we were real adventurers in a strange land.

We set off on our bikes again and overcame the distressing hills and arrived at a huge sand dune. Seeing this was actually better than it sounds as the surface looked incomprehensively smooth and the colour of the dune contrasted beautifully with the bright blue of the sky. Round the corner were impressive rock formations known as the ‘Amphitheatres;’ so-called because time and weather had eroded them to a shape that resembled..well..an amphitheatre. On the return journey, we had fabulous views of the cone-shaped volcano Licanbur. The return journey was the highlight of the bike ride for us as we got to enjoy the fascinating landscape of the valley with the backdrop of the volcano. The sweat, lack of water, after dinner stitch and dust all seemed worthwhile.
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