The fuscous-brown desert is torturing me. I neither see man nor beast for miles in each direction. The cancerous rays of the sun are bouncing off the sand with cankerous heat for which I have no shelter from. Maybe the heat is causing my insanity because I see vultures soaring above the skies just waiting to feast on my remains.
I took the last swig of water from the plastic Sprite bottle strapped to the bicycle frame by a shoelace. A bicycle that’s about to fall apart.
Crap. Lost in the driest most hostile place for life in the planet without water and bike about to fail and all I can think of was.
What a spectacular place!
I like deserts. They’re cool. I make a yearly pilgrimage to Death Valley National Park. I’m just not fond of the searing heat of the sun. I have a certain phobia of meeting my demise dried up like a prune under the desert sun. That’s just an agonizing and slow death. Heck, I’m scared of raisins. So never in my better days would I have ever attempted to traverse the driest place on the planet by bike. I visited San Pedro De Atacama intending to explore the Valle De Luna because of its unique landscapes and features.
It is the driest place on Earth.
The area is so arid that it is devoid of life. The environment is unforgiving. It’s like being on Mars. I had every intent on exploring the Atacama with the comfort of a guided tour. Guided tours aren’t my thing but I don’t like becoming a raisin even more. I can enjoy being on Mars with air conditioner, cold drinks, and delicious snacks.
Upon arrival at the San Pedro De Atacama terminal. I searched for a suitable tour guide and that’s when I met Mindaugas.
He asked me a question in Spanish. I responded with a confused nod and lost look on my face. In English then. He came from Lithuania and is in Chile on a grant to work on a startup project. He is in San Pedro De Atacama for a quick escape from his busy life in Valparaiso.
Mindaugas works in music technology. He has ideas from motion tracking sensor that creates sound from gestures to scratching devices you can attach to a bicycle wheel. Seemed like a creative dude who looked more like an eccentric hipster than a desert bike demon.
Mindaugas mentioned that he had a friend who’s toured the Valle De Luna by bike and suggested we do the same. I haven’t ridden a bike in over a year. Riding through the driest place on earth just seems crazy. Mindaugas is convinced it’s the best way to explore it. I figured what the heck? It’d be an adventure. Besides, it would only be about 30km round trip. Right? What could go wrong?
We mulled about sleeping under the stars in the desert. It is the driest place on earth so it the wouldn’t rain on us. A sleeping bag without tent would suffice. We found a shop that will rent the bikes for$8,000 CLP for 24 hours. The bikes are sad. Some have frames ready that looked like they’re held together by duct tape.
The bikes didn’t have racks to carry water or any additional gear. We MacGyvered some with spare shoe laces. We each had 1.5 litter Sprite bottles filled with water tied to the front forks of the bicycles. It didn’t look pretty but it beats having to carry it in a backpack. In hindsight, I think we needed 3 liters of water each.
The entrance to the Valle De Luna is only about 5km away from the town center. However, It’s windy, dry, and you’re perspiring from the cycling activity. It’s so dry that every moisture in your body just dissipates in an instant.
Tip: If you’re planning to bike the Valley De Luna, plan accordingly. Carry more water than you think you need and bring sunblock.
It was rusty with a bike. The unpaved and undulating roads didn’t help with the matter. The bike seats were horrendous and hard. It felt like I was sitting on granite boulders. There’s a CH$2,000 entrance fee to the park and from here there’s a 20-minute ride to the first attraction, Cuevas del sal. You’ll need a flashlight of sorts to hike around the dark corridors or follow the other tourists who have headlamps. There’s not much to see here but you can, at least, enjoy running around lost in a salt cave.
This part of the Valle De Luna comprises of salt stones with surreal mountains that look like they are of extraterrestrial origin. The road to the next stop is the toughest of the part of the trek. It’s a short climb but one that opens up to a steep plateau. I’ve had to walk my bike up 5 minutes into the ride. Mindaugus seemed to have an easier time but he too eventually succumbed to the steepness.
We took a break after we cleared the steep part and took pictures. The landscape now looks more like a desert with hints of sand dunes wind-sculpted sandstones. The volcano Licancabur can now be seen jaunting over the horizon behind us. It feels like we landed on the moon.
We explored a flat area with undulating sand dunes. Not even 20 minutes later and we heard a loud honking from a car. Here comes a tour guide, or he could have been a ranger, waving and yelling. He screamed something in Spanish and I couldn’t understand.
Mindaugus conversed with the dude with what Spanish he knows. I guess we weren’t supposed to walk in the area and make footprints. We saw no sign so we explored.
There are several stops you can explore by foot. There’s a natural amphitheater where you can see the entire valley and there are remnants of salt mines and mining houses. The trail meanders around in a loop with a locked gate by the strange rock formation called “Tres Hermanas.”
This is where shit hit the fan
Mindaugas circumvented the locked gate and proceeded down that unknown road. I was too busy taking pictures of the “Tres Hermanas.” to notice him slip by. I turned around and he was already jamming’ downhill into wherever desert abyss the road will take him.
The road doesn’t look inviting. It’s steaming asphalt with rock salt and pebbles. I motioned him to come back up to no avail. He went on further and came into another gate with some construction workers. I saw them talking and they let him through. I followed shortly. To where? Who knows? I checked my sprite bottle and there were only a few swigs left. I looked ahead and all can I see is a vast expanse of sand and dirt.
Are we gonna ride through this?
We trudge on and continued up a mixed dirt and asphalt road for another 15 kilometers. The trail was a constant climb uphill and I’m down to my last drop of water. Mindaugas, who probably trained for the Tour de France, is now disappearing beyond the horizon.Suddenly, I was alone in the desert. Without water.
After, another hour of the exhausting ride, I can see signs of civilization. Just a mile ahead was the Highway my bus took to get to San Pedro.
I was ecstatic.
At least for now I would not be claimed by the Atacama! I caught up with Mindaugas, who’s snacking on raisins on the side of the road like it’s just a Sunday ride at the park. After a little break, we continued up the highway which was another mountainous climb.
I was exhausted.
I couldn’t pedal anymore and I walked the bike at least 2 miles up the hill and reached a plateau. From here the views of the Quebrada Del Diablo opens up beyond the horizon. At that moment. I knew why I agreed to go on this grueling bike ride in the most hostile desert in the world. Suddenly, my spirit was lifted. Thirst and leg cramps floated out to a distant memory.
I was amazed!
From here it was the most enjoyable ride of the entire trek. An easy downhill skid to San Pedro De Atacama where a hot meal and cold beer is waiting.
How difficult is it really?
Ok, maybe I was being melodramatic with my story but touring Valle De Luna by bike is only about 30km in total. It’s only when you include the Quedabra del Diablo that things get more challenging. If you’re reasonably fit, do it. The views are unforgettable. The surrealistic landscapes are something that will be etched in your memories forever. There’s nothing else like it.
Side trip: Check out Pucara de Quitor ruins. We discovered it by accident. We took the wrong route towards Valle de Luna and ended up here the day before. It’s a worthy but tiring hike. Bring lots of water.
Ready to tackle the Atacama by Bike?
- From Santiago, you can take an airplane to Calama. From Calama, it’s just a 98km bus ride to San Pedro. There are 5 daily flights from Santiago and airfare can be expensive. The route I took is by bus and it’s a 20-hour bus ride but doing this way is cheaper. You can sleep on the bus and that alone saves you a night’s worth of accommodation. I recommend the full Cama for a comfortable ride.
- In San Pedro, several tour companies offer different services including bike rentals. The town center is small and the tour companies are practically next to each other so shop around.
- Try to ride in the morning. The wind picks up from the north in the afternoon or you’ll ride against the wind. Bring layers of clothing. Though it’s a desert, it can get very cold quick.
HAVE YOU BEEN TO THE ATACAMA DESERT?