Atacama Lagoon

Cycling the Driest Desert on Earth: The Atacama Desert

As the rising sun chased away the morning shadows, the heat began to seep through our jackets and the rocks around us began to crackle. We stood on a river of fine sand. The canyon wall to our left now in full sunlight seemed to be playing the music of the dawn, clicking and clacking like a radiator that is heating up.

The silence is otherwise complete in this part of Valle de la Luna in Atacama’s Salt Mountains, a mountain range made of salt and clay.  To dispel his doubts about the mountain’s salt makeup, Trin licked a shiny part of its surface that looked like crystal.  He was immediately convinced and his facial expression was enough for me to believe.

Salt of the Atacama
Exposed salt from the Salt Mountains in Valle de la Luna

San Pedro de Atacama

After spending our last night in Bolivia at 15,000 feet and suffering bone-chilling cold and altitude sickness, we were so happy to cross into Chile and descend down to 8,000 feet.

Our first stop in Chile was the old mining town of San Pedro de Atacama, located in the driest non-polar desert in the world. Like most deserts temperates between night and day can vary dramatically. With nothing to protect life from the sun, it can be deadly hot during the day. Once the sun disappears below the horizon however the desert does not hold onto the heat and nights are cold.

The driest place on earth is also perfect for stargazing

Church near the center square of San Pedro de Atacama
Church near the center square of San Pedro de Atacama

I employed my current favorite gadget to combat the cold, a recent acquisition: a 200-watt light bulb. I bought it for 5 Bolivianos (72 cents) in cold-awful Potosi, Bolivia, which, at 13,420 feet (4,000 meters) elevation, is one of the highest cities in the world. The 200-watt bulb produces enough heat to take the edge off the chill in a small room. Except for our last night in Bolivia where the generator did not have enough juice to light it.  Here in San Pedro, it kept our room at a good comfortable temperature.

The town of San Pedro de Atacama is a tourist town. People from all over the world crowd the narrow single-lane dusty roads. Occasionally, cars navigate down the streets, and the tourists part to let them pass. Local artisan shops line the streets along with tour agencies and bicycle rental shops. Despite the number of tourists, it is still an appealing, laid-back, little town.

The real draw of the town is its surrounding landscape.

Vicuna heard in the Atacama
Vicuña herd. We watched as the alpha male kicked out one of the male youngsters who was coming of age. His young girlfriend was also kicked out with him. A least this is the story a local told us about the herd.

VALLE DE LA LUNA

We rented bicycles to tour the Valley de la Luna (Moon Valley) on our own. We grabbed our rentals as soon as the shops opened at 8:30 AM in order to catch the cool morning air.

TRINITIP: Rent your bikes from Hostal Matty.  They have a huge garage where they store their bicycles.  This makes it easy for them to find a bike of your size.  Most other shops have their bicycles side-stacked.  If your desired size is at least 3 bikes in, they can’t be bothered to dig it out for you.  They will insist that you ride another bike that is an inch too high, not realizing that it could spell the difference between a pleasant ride and a painful crotch landing.

In addition to a full Camelback bladder, we also took a full Nalgene bottle.  In a desert, especially the driest one on earth, the most important thing is staying hydrated.

The entrance to the Valley de Luna park in the Atacama desert is 13 kilometers (8 miles) from town. A paved, rocky, and sometimes sandy road from there led us directly into the salt mountains.

Moon Valley in the Atacama on bicycles
Moon Valley

CAVES OF ATACAMA

The first stop of our bike ride was a trail that led us through caves in Moon Valley.  The shards of exposed salt crystals lining some of the cavern walls intrigued me. The trail was cramped in some parts, but even with his bum toe, Trin was able to navigate through them, so it wasn’t that hard and there was plenty of room to navigate with just the two of us exploring.  Unlike the cave in Torotoro where he injured his toe.

I was impressed with the marked trails that helped to protect this beautiful landscape.  There were even the occasional rebar handholds on some of the steeper ascents to aid tourists. It’s a nice touch showing that the people here care about its land and its visitors.

Salt rock in the Atacama
We placed the flashlight directly on the surface of the rock to show its transparency.

SAND DUNES

The mountains are of jagged rocks that push their sharp edges to the sky in a beautiful array of colors and shapes. Salt residue gives them the appearance of snow, some places in this desert have not seen rainfall for hundreds of years.

Wind is the primary sculptor of the valley.  It blows loose particles against the serrated edges of the mountains breaking them into fine sand. The accumulated sand creates large dunes. The dunes appear like velvet and almost shimmer as we walk around them. I picked up a fistful of sand and let it sift through my fingers. It felt like satin.

Valley de Leuna of the Atacama
The mountains of Moon Valley with its deposit of sand in the center.

VIEWPOINTS

We stopped for lunch at the Duna Mayor lookout point. Even though we drank water constantly we continued to be thirsty. We ate our lunch to a beautiful breeze and soaked in the majestic view of sheer cliffs, sand dunes, and a desert that reached beyond what the eye could see. Its beauty not diminishing in the distance.

The roads were fairly flat with only minor inclines but our out-of-training rear end coupled with an ill-fitting saddle gave us a severe case of sore butts. But the scenery was spectacular and it fueled us with energy to finish the ride. We made it back in time without having to do a Tommy Garubba over-the-handlebar finish.

When I got back to our hostel I swear my skin drank in the shower. Trin said he experienced no such thing, but it was refreshing all the same.

Moon Valley in the Atacama
View from the Duna Mayor lookout point of Moon Valley

LAGUNA ALTO

There are many tours and a swarm of tour agencies in San Pedro de Atacama. We stopped at a few to get prices and information. Most of them gave us a list of their tours and prices that we could take with us to compare. Only one shop grew upset when we asked if we could take their price list with us which he had written down. Not sure why, maybe because he was charging three times the amount that everyone else did.

I signed up with Tour Connections for the Lagunas Antiplanicas tour, with a stop at Piedras Rojas. In the off-season, most tour companies pool their meager clients to form better-sized tour groups. Carlos of Leni’s Tours led our tour group.

Check out Carlos playing the volcanic rocks that lined the landscape on our way to the higher elevation.

I highly recommend Carlos and Lenis Tours. He explained everything to us clearly and enthusiastically and shared his wealth of knowledge about the region and the country. He was excited and proud of his country. I love seeing that. I love to see people who focus on the positives of the place they live. No place is perfect, and focusing on errors or misdeeds of the country just brings everyone down and doesn’t accomplish anything good.

ATACAMA SALT FLATS

Having driven through the Uyuni Salt Flats I wanted to see the Atacama Salt Flats and compare them. The salt bed in Bolivia is flat. It has a smooth surface of white with small salt bubbles and crystals covering its surface.

Here in Chile, the salt valley is a large plain surrounded by the Andes, the salt mountains, and the lilac mountains. They create a bowl effect that directs wet-season rains to the valley floor. The water never flows out of this basin. It evaporates during the dry season. The floor of the valley is a rough surface made of evaporated rock. It looked like a gigantic piece of sandpaper. While the composition of the Uyuni flats is primarily salt, the salt flat in the Atacama is a mix of salt, lithium, borax, and sulfur. When water evaporates it leaves behind jagged lightweight rocks devoid of smooth surfaces.

Salt Flats of the Atacama
Salt Flats of the Atacama

The lithium deposits in Salar de Uyuni are claimed to be the biggest in the world and have the potential to provide the world’s lithium needs for the next hundred years.  But the lithium in the Atacama is in a purer form and is easier to mine.  Not only is Lithium exported for batteries in smartphones and electric cars, it is also used in fertilizers (mixed with potassium) and medicine. Lithium medication treats schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression.  Maybe this is why the flamingos here dance.

FLAMINGOS

The Atacama Salt Flat is home to three varieties of Flamingos: the Andean flamingo, the James flamingo, and the Chilean flamingo. The guy at the tour agency told us that the Chilean flamingos “dance because they are Chilean and they are happy.”  Carlos said that they are Chilean flamingos because they are smarter. They dance to stir up the food supply and can, therefore, eat faster than the other types of flamingos.

Flamingos of the Salt Flats in the Atacama
Flamingos of the Salt Flats in Chile

“We are stupid to mine all this lithium, sell it, then buy it back in the form of batteries and medicine,” Carlos said.

Well, no country is perfect or has it all figured out but overall he is very enthusiastic about the beauty and qualities of Chile. He is not blind to improvements that can be made but he just chooses to focus on the positive. I love that.

Laguna with RED ROCKS

The tour then took us up to 13,500 feet (4,120 meters) and a beautiful view of Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñique. Knowing my susceptibility to altitude sickness I took some altitude medication when we left that morning and I did fine. We flew 85mph down long straight roads with amazing views of the Andes. We gazed at volcanoes and beautiful deserts covered with yellow tuffs of grass.

Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñique used to be part of a river, but a volcano erupted and blocked the water flow creating two majestic lakes. Both are still connected underground through lava chutes. There are no fish here and no one knows why. Local indigenous people say that many years ago when they were small children they remembered fishing with their grandparents in these lakes.

Laguna Miscanti of that Atacama
Laguna Miscanti

“Unofficially though,” Carlos said in a conspiratorial tone, looking left and then right as if some government official might hear him, “it is said that the lake was poisoned in the 1970s just before Chile and Argentina were to go to war.”

The lakes rest on the border between Chili and Argentina. When the Chilean soldiers saw their Argentinian counterparts hanging around the lake, they poisoned it to eliminate their opponent’s food source. I wondered if it was just the sulfur content from the volcano that prevented life. Carlos said it has not been tested, or if it has it is kept quiet.

PIEDRAS ROJAS & LAGUNA TUYAJTO

Continuing to climb into the Andes at 13,000 feet (3,950 meters), we reached the Piedras Rojas (Red Rocks) area next to a beautiful white Laguna (pictured as the feature image of this article). An adjacent volcano heats up the lake water and the white color is from the salt, sulfur, and borax.  We stood at an overlook gazing at the colors of the desert and the thermal lake.  Everyone shivered in the cold air.  I was really happy with my long down coat which I purchased at the Mercado El Alto in La Paz.

LAGUNA TUYAJTO of the Atacama
Laguna Tuyajto

Just another few miles drive took us to Laguna Tuyajto with its Caribbean blue water.  The color is due to the white sand that created its floor and the minerals from the melting snow that filled the basin.

TOURING ATACAMA

Overall the entire area is stunning. The drive alone through the Andes was spectacular. Cycling through the desert was a pleasant, alternate way to enjoy Moon Valley.  Personally, I list this area high on the list of places to visit while in South America.

Sunset over the Salt Flat Valley in the Atacama
Sunset over the Salt Flat Valley in the Atacama. Behind me are the Andes mountains. Far in the distance begin the Salt Mountains and the dry valley of the moon.

I feel so blessed with the opportunity to see these beautiful places.

Find your blue door

 

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9 thoughts on “Cycling the Driest Desert on Earth: The Atacama Desert”

  1. jensupermoth@hotmail.com

    Lovely writing and photos! Licking all those salt rocks might have made you thirst too! 😛

  2. Absolutely awesome description of where you were. Made me feel like I was there right along with you enjoying it. Sounds like a fantastic place to visit.

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