Full Moon and Thunderstorms on the Altiplano – Chile / Argentina Puna Crossing – Paso Sico

San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) – Socaire – Paso Sico – San Antonio de Los Cobres (Argentina) (see end of post for route map)

I’ve come to the conclusion that high altitude mountain deserts are one of my favourite places to camp.  Their potential for peace and tranquility enables a meditative experience that is hard to beat; the Atacama desert is no exception and also offers one of the best star-gazing experiences on the planet. Although these stars were hidden during my cross over to Argentina by the glare of a huge full moon and thunderstorms the sky on show offered some pretty spectacular alteranatives…

Here is a desert photo diary from San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) to Argentina:

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The New Year starts off well when I make some very cool new Brazilian friends. We ‘cycle’ up to touristy ‘Valle de Luna’.

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They make me realise how incredibly kind and warm hearted Brazilian people are.

Valle de Luna. A popular place to visit at sunset. It’s not hard to see why. Photo credit: Carolina Righetti (professional photographer)

Legends. Photo credit: Carolina Righetti

The clear Atacama skies with virtually non-existent light pollution offer good night photography potential.

After finally managing to leave San Pedro, I only make it 33km down the road to Toconao. I’m sad to leave so my new Chilean friend Francisca visits me from San Pedro and we hike up the Jeré canyon in the late afternoon sun.

The next morning we head off to Socaire (on the way to Paso Sico).

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Initially an easy flat-ish paved ride…

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…turns into just under 800 metres of elevation gain.

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Whilst finishing up dinner in Socaire, the moon unexpectedly starts rising above the horizon in impressive fashion.

Tansfixed, I continue taking photos whilst Francisca has a hot $1 shower by the community centre.

With limited accommodation options and a realisation that I am in short supply of cash, we ‘bed’ down on the floor in a room on a construction site to get out of the wind. We continue on up towards the pass the next morning.

After a bit of searching we find some early afternoon shade from the relentless sun. “Don’t accidentally kick the pillar supporting the 5 tons of sandstone”, I plead Francisca. Kindly she respects my request and we make it out alive

And here we set up camp. By not using the mosquito netting we are able to share my one man MSR Hubba.

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Then we settle down…

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…for the evening’s light show

Followed by the full moon to complete the double bill.

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The next morning sees an emotional goodbye as Francisca heads back to San Pedro and I cycle up the steep 7km to Lagunas Miscanti and Miñiques. At the entrance a couple of unhelpful park officials inform me that there is no route through to Paso Sico (although it is actually just closed). After a couple of snaps,  I cycle back down disappointed.

I wilfully accept the 2 hour time and energy loss and use the experience to practise my interest in stoic philosophy – focus only on what is in our power and turn every obstacle / ‘set back’ into an opportunity…  Pretty soon I’m back to equanimity.

Threatening clouds offer some interesting distractions on the long climb.   Am I now in the rainy season? (Spot the herd of vicuña)

Forming all sorts of imaginative shapes, the clouds suffocate the volcanoes in a manner that is completely fixating. “Glad not to be on that peak right now.”

Lago Tuyaito (4,050m) – Very dark clouds and wind make me think its time to start finding shelter.

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After finding a suitable camp behind some rocks I look up to see an amazing display of light

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Very dark clouds and a lightning storm take up half the sky next to the setting sun. It is hard not to be impressed.

The light drizzle turns into torrential rain as the full force of the storm hits. Deafening thunder immediately follows bright flashes of lightning. Sitting in my leaking tent with its metal poles on a high point I realise I need to move so I curl up to fit into a tiny nearby cave for 10 minutes whilst it passes.

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The next morning reveals what the dark skies were hiding. Enjoying the beautiful light I feel a huge sense of peace.

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I head off at 9.20 am after losing time to some impromptu kit repair…

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…with the entire sky looking like this

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A few hours later I make it over Paso Sico and look back towards Chile.

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And then smile as I realise I have finally arrived in the country I’ve talked about for so long

Paso Sico is normally a quiet dirt alternate to the busier paved Paso Jama, seeing only a handful of cars each day. On this occasion there is a confusingly large amount of traffic resulting in unwelcome thought interruption and coatings of dust. (A car every few minutes compared to the reputed handful per day). On arrival at customs it becomes apparent as to why – Paso Jama is closed because of a landslide.  I’ve somehow picked the busiest day, EVER. The normally quick queue at the ‘aduanas’ turns into 2 hours as I time my arrival perfectly with the customs officer’s lunch and peak season and peak hour tourist traffic…

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After making it through border control my luck changes when I am offered fruit and this huge stack of cured ham and cheese sandwiches by tourists crossing the other way. With zero food supply options on this route, Chile’s strict import law turns out to be incredibly handy.

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With the wind of my back I clock up another 40 kilometres this day on the sandy semi-washboarded undulating road surface. Very dark ominous clouds on the road ahead correctly predict some tedious rain; a feature I am becoming accustomed to.

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The stretch of desert is very open and finding shelter from the gale force winds proves difficult. I press forward in the dying moments of daylight hoping to stumble across some sort of protection from the impending storm.

The promises of rain are fulfilled but I finally manage to spot some protection from the wind in a dry ditch / quebrada. I fight with my tent in the rain, wind and dark for a considerable amount of time awkwardly setting up only the ‘fly’ (not something I usually do).  I then prepare a soup with my fast cooking ‘angel hair’ pasta, a stock cube, butter and some goats cheese that’s been ageing in my bag for several days pleading to be eaten.  The result is surprisingly tasty.

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The next morning I fly down the next 10 kilometres and stumble across these ostrich-like birds (‘Nandu’ I believe)

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Before finding a landscape with a preference for electricity infrastructure

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And this man made monster

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Further up, I battle into a strong afternoon headwind and am lured inside this abandoned house.  Could this be an early camp?

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No. Abandoned houses are, of course, magnets for poo and unappealing graffiti. Why is that?

I continue on up and stop for a compulsory snooze on some hot sand when exhaustion and massive lethargy take over. I manage to enjoy the last rays of sunlight on my body before a cold rain shower takes their place. This forces a change of attire and the dry packing of my camera but I finally I make it over the pass. The rain clears but on the descent the hail and rain storm of the year hits forcing a check-in at the first available hostel on the outskirts of San Antonio. The next day all roads are closed due to flooding and the local gymnasium is turned into a refuge centre for the hundreds of tourist ‘refugees’ trapped in town. I ignore this eventuality and make myself delicious pancakes with melted cheese and ham.

Just one more…

Route Notes:

(you can try clicking here for the gpx file)

As usual Andes By Bike offer some excellent information on this section.  The only difference was that I avoided the 300 metre climb after customs by going straight instead of left to Catua which was beautiful but hard to compare without riding both.ƒlarge

3 thoughts on “Full Moon and Thunderstorms on the Altiplano – Chile / Argentina Puna Crossing – Paso Sico

  1. Yet another chapter in an interesting story and the photos are great. You must have been sad when your bike friends left. Francesca perhaps especially! Good luck with the onward journey. Keep safe at all times and don’t take risks. John

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