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BREATHLESS (SALTA - SAN PEDRO VIA SICO PASS)

 

June 3 -  June 25, 2006 

Salta – San Antonio de los Cobres – Olacapato ( Argentina) – Paso de Sico – San Pedro de Atacama (Chile)

 
June was a month of farewells. After six months of hopping across the border between Argentina and Chile, we are now ready for new terrain. Our 5,000km route from the end of the world in Tierra del Fuego, brought us through such diverse scenery, it’s remarkable what these two countries have to offer. Snow-capped mountains and glaciers, wind-swept plains and fertile pastures, active volcanoes and turquoise lakes, lush rainforest and barren desert, lazy towns and bustling cities, with numerous colourful gorges and national parks thrown in for good measure… make Chile and Argentina very attractive destinations. The diversity is reflected in the roads as well. Some brought tears, others joy… and quite a few we’d do again!
 

ARGENTINA

Our farewell to Argentina was in the delightful city of Salta, otherwise known as Salta, la Linda (the beautiful). This city of about 500,000 has quite a sprinkle of colonial buildings and magnificent churches, with a central plaza second to none.


San Francisco church, Salta


Plaza 9 de Julio, Salta


San Bernardo Hill, Salta

Salta even has a Swiss-built cable car up to San Bernardo Hill, where the tourist can admire a panoramic view, with the Andes as a backdrop.

Local snacks include humitas (steamed corn rolls), tamales (steamed meat rolls) and empanadas (savoury pastries).


Local snacks, Salta


Fancy some intestines?


Cyclists in Salta
Another temporary attraction was the presence of a dozen fellow European cyclists, otherwise known as the mafia de ciclistas. All northbound, the various routes into Bolivia were discussed at length, and groups formed in different directions.
Myriam and Arnaud (French), southbound from Alaska on their tandem, were instrumental in influencing our approach. With a detailed sketch of the Sico Pass, accommodation and water sources, they sold this Andes crossing very convincingly… and we were off!


Myriam and Arnaud


Darina, Kurt, Liam & Claire
Together with Liam and Claire from England, we climbed 1,000 altitude metres for three consecutive days, up to San Antonio de los Cobres at 3,800m above sea level. This beautiful paved stretch included our first 4,000m pass (which we were all very proud of) and shortly afterwards we were back to our beloved ripio – a corrugated, gravel road all the way to Chile and beyond!
San Antonio de los Cobres was where we acclimatised to this altitude. In the following days, we all experienced various symptoms, to greater or lesser degrees, of being at such a height. Bloody noses, hyperventilation, speeding heartbeat, sleepless nights, headaches and suppressed appetite, were encountered with sub-zero temperatures just to add to the fun!


San Antonio de los Cobres


Dipo, Petra, Kurt, Claire and Liam
Here we were joined by Petra (Swiss) and Dipo (German) for the next leg of the trip. Twenty km out of town, at about 4,300m, Darina was in dire need of an immediate lung transplant, but what we got instead was a lift into Olacapato. There, we all had another day of acclimatisation before attacking the Sico Pass.
Unfortunately, when we were packed and ready to go, three of the other four came down with a bad bout of food poisoning and so we were on our own. A 60km ride through a sandy track led to the Argentine border post, where we were kindly received and put up for the night.


A whole lot of sand out there


4,115m above sea level

The next day it was a chilly 9am start to tackle the famous Sico Pass. To the borderline itself it was an easy climb up to 4,115m, but then the serious work started.                

 

CHILE

The road got steeper and the headwind stronger… but cycling through a beautiful caldera was an immense reward for the eye. We hit a 4,468m pass and then enjoyed a down hill with a fabulous view of a lagoon surrounded by snow-capped peaks.


Caldera view on the Sico Pass


Bleak scenery on the Sico Pass
After a tough push up to the Chilean border post, the officials exchanged our Argentine for Chilean onions, and sent us off in the evening wind, over yet another 4,576m pass to the Laco mine, 7 km away. This is where video footage of Kurt pushing Darina pushing the bike, would be a sight to behold and not one Darina ever cares to see.
Galvarino and Enrique were on duty at this standby iron mine and welcomed our weary, frozen bodies with open arms and piping-hot cups of tea. We had a very enjoyable evening with them before retiring into their sub-zero guest room at 4,500m, where our toothbrushes and water bottles froze solid overnight.


Galvarino, Kurt and Enrique


Laguna Tuyajito
The next day we got some return on our numerous climbs of previous days and enjoyed lagoon after lagoon on our downhill. While relaxing by the side of the road mid-afternoon, the first vehicle in three days rolled up and a few lads from Valparaiso gave us a spin down to Socaire, where we were back to asphalt again.


Terraced fields and thatched church in Socaire

   
Rolling down to San Pedro de Atacama was a very enjoyable experience with grand views over the huge Atacama salt flats on one side and a string of volcanoes, including the active Lascar crater, on the other.


 Pavement at last!

 
On the road we met Dani (Swiss) and Gabriel (Swedish) cycling south from Alaska and Quito respectively, and were entertained with their many stories of adventures crossing the Andes and salt lakes on our route ahead.


Dani and Gabriel headed for Patagonia (Picture by courtesy of Dani)

   

Adobe architecture, San Pedro
Our farewell to Chile was in the tourist town of San Pedro de Atacama. This oasis in the world’s driest desert is famous for its adobe architecture and surrounding valleys and moonscapes.
   
San Pedro was another great meeting point for the Mafia de Ciclistas formed in Salta. Here we are pictured with Christine (Germany) and Philippe (Switzerland), Petra (Switzerland) and Dipo (Germany).


Christine, K, Petra, D, Dipo & Philippe

   

The Valley of the Moon, San Pedro


Death Valley, San Pedro

 
A pricey end to our Chilean experience… especially when, as in many Chilean towns, Visa is alien, MasterCard is king, and local money changers know how to take advantage of cashless tourists.

Now, Bolivia lies ahead with its altiplano and indigena culture. It will be quite a change from the European faces of Chile and Argentina.

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