Atacama Alternate: Gravel Grinding San Pedro to Cafayate


San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

4 restful days in San Pedro were filled with great company, good beer, fresh food and gear restocking. While there I joined in on plans with a growing group of cyclists to rent a flat in Mendoza, Argentina for a 3-day Christmas party. In order to make it there without hitching a ride, it would require covering about 2000km in just under 3 weeks over unknown terrain. Time to get started… I could either stay on the Chilean side of the Andes and Continental Divide for a few hundred kilometers, riding down the length of the Atacama Desert, or hop over the mountains to Argentina where I’d heard the conditions were a little more welcoming. Opting for a slightly more comfortable choice, at least for now, I selected option b…


I rolled out of Alex’s house and back into San Pedro for a final food stocking and leisurely coffee. Truly I could have used a couple more days of rest here, but my resistance to hitching rides was greater than my growing inertia. I said goodbye to a few touring cyclists I’d met around town and rolled on into the open Atacama Desert. The route I’d picked would send me up and over Paso Sico to my first Argentinian border. Now that I’m down in South Central South America, I’ve begun studying the local road maps and am coming to realize that If I want to stay up in those big and beautiful mountains I will have to cross them repeatedly. No roads continue directly South through the mountains, but many travel down the valleys to the East and West of them. So I’ll go South a ways, cross over the mountains to the other country, South a ways, cross back, etc. Paso Sico would be my first of such international border hops. To reach it I’d be traveling South on the desolate highway for a while before climbing up the border road. 


 Talk about a big landmark! Tropic of Capricorn!!! I stood under this sign for a while, reminiscing about the other such signs I’ve crossed (Arctic Circle in Alaska, Tropic of Cancer in Baja California, Ecuator in Ecuador, and now this!) These signs are the most profound… well… ‘signs’ of my longitudinal travel around the globe, and I realized that it would be my last of such signals in the Americas. The Antarctic Circle more or less borders Antartica, QUITE far South of my Tierra del Fuego terminus. 

So what does it mean? Well, I’m now in my second to last country on this Southern trajectory, and that within the next few months I’ll likely reach Ushuaia. I will actually arrive at my “goal”, which I had originally picked in order to be virtually inconceivable as a reachable point (at least from the vantage of my commencement in Alaska). I’ve been on this Southbound route for over 30 months now, and all of the sudden I’m realizing that I’ll need to do something else soon… Either fly to another piece of land (Norway, South Africa, Asia) to begin a new leg of this journey, or … not. From this point forward the question of “what next?” began to grow, accompanied by hopes, dreams and peppered with anxiety a-plenty. But for now I still have some time. Enough so to ponder my options, to ponder what lessons I’ve learned, and ponder what choices they will fuel. 


I rolled into the tiny mountain town of Socaire as the golden rays of setting sun turned magenta. I hoped to find a cheap meal and a place to put up my tent. As I rolled through the two-block center, one of the 2 comedores was open, with a crew of road workers sitting out front smoking and drinking beers. Upon asking them for a tenting suggestion, one told me he was a cook there and that I’d be welcome to set up my tent right on the front stoop of the restaurant by the door. While not the peaceful natural setting I’d hoped for I had little options in this late hour. I rested the bike by the door and after fielding a barrage of the standard “what the hell are you doing here with that bike?” questions, I wandered in. The place was busy, filled with road workers who were paving the Paso Sico road all the way to the border. No menu here, just “dinner”, a huge plate of rice, beans, potato, and a slab of meat. It was simple. And fantastic. 

After chatting with the owners for a while I returned to the front stoop to set up my tent. Halfway through the process the matriarch of the place came out and told me I’d be welcome to just sleep on the floor of the restaurant. It would be closing soon and I’d have the place to myself! So I broke the tent back down and rolled inside. As the employees shuffled out the door I found a cozy nook in between 2 tables and crashed out. Sometime later I awoke in the darkness to a flashlight in my face. It was the daughter of the owner, coming in to have some soda with her friends, and completely surprised to find a random miscreant sleeping on the floor! I told her I’d been invited to stay and we laughed about the awkward moment as she shared some soda. I awoke after what felt like 10 minutes of sleep to see the morning light, the owner standing above me with a cup of coffee in his outstretched hand. So nice. Muchisimas gracias a Irma Cruz y su esposo para todo su compasion, ayuda y generosidad!

They sat me down to an enormous breakfast (probably the best I’ve had in weeks!), and would not accept any payment for it. Seriously. These guys were angels in the real world. After giving me a few tips about the road ahead, I thanked them profusely and rolled on. 


The paved road ended soon after Socaire, but a smooth and well-graded gravel one took it’s place. Big climbs with gorgeous views.


Summiting a pass, the road curved down to some huge lagunas very similar to that of what I’d seen in Southern Bolivia. Not surprising, I’m only 100 miles South of there.


I noticed the relatively flat rocky terrain alongside the lake, and that my route seemed to be unnecessarily circuitous in it’s meanderings out and around it. So I cut off the road for what I’d hoped would be a shortcut to the far lakeshore…


Alas, I was too far in to turn back and the smooth rock turned into a bouncy mess. Pretty fun terrain to try to right though though!


As day 2 came to a close, it was again time to find campsite. Not an easy task out here. Despite how open the terrain appears, the winds were gusting powerfully and my tent had already disproved it’s ability to withstand such forces.  I tried riding around the shore of a large lake i in hopes of a little flat nook. An hour later I’d ridden around the whole thing with nothing but whipping wind in my face and ever darkening skies.


Finally. Some rocks up the hillside off the road were my last hope. I found a semi-flat spot that I hoped would provide enough of a wind barrier to protect my tent. 


Not a bad spot to watch a sunset!


I awoke to the morning sun over the far peaks and quickly reached for my trusty merino shirt to combat the cool morning air. Even with my gentle method of putting it on to care for it’s now paper-thin fabric, I tore another 5-inch long hole across the shoulder. The time had come to retire this thing. But somehow it felt wrong to just toss it in a trash can. This shirt has been with me on every single overnight bike tour. Since the Spring of 2013, it has kept me warm, protected, and comfortable. It needed a proper funeral. So I propped it on an appropriate rock, far from where any other travelers would likely find it, and said goodbye. Looking at the photo now, I hadn’t notice how akin it’s placement was to a crucifixion… oddly appropriate albeit melodramatic.


The colors of these mountains. Uncaptureable by my camera. The reds were deeper. The contrast with the whites, sharper. But still.


Cresting another pass, the reds turned grey and purple. Truly amazing. 


And then all the sudden, in the middle of nowhere, I was entering Argentina! I wondered how borders and stamping would happen. No exit customs from Chile? No entrance to Argentina? Had I somehow missed it? Did I need to turn back to check? I just couldn’t. I pushed on and hoped it would somehow make sense in the road ahead. 


And it did. Another 10 anxious miles ahead, I came upon the shared Argentina/Chile customs building. It was large, new and fancy. Mostly empty. I had to call out for a while to get a couple customs agents to notice me from a back office. They were warm and welcoming, offering water, and even wifi access (not bad for a federal facility). After completing my paperwork, they even told me I was welcome to stay the night! I figured that would look similar to my experience back in Socaire, snuggling up in some corner of the main customs room, but not so…


The building had been equipped with a whole area designed to house wayward visitors on their way across the border, with bunk beds, pillows, and heat!


Even a kitchen. I enjoyed a restful night here with the whole place to myself, and rolled out the following morning refreshed.


A long day through enormous valleys. 


I dropped down from these desolate mountains into a small, surprisingly touristy town, San Antonio de los Cobres. A bit of rest, an overpriced (by Bolivian standards) meal and some food restocking sent me back out into the Northern Argentinian mountainside to begin a long, slow climb up to Abra Acay. 


After a short paved stint, I turned South onto the famed Highway 40. I’ve seen many stickers on friends’  bikes celebrating extended riding along this trans-Argentinian road, and had assumed it was by and large a smooth paved road. Not here. Not yet at least. From the turnoff it was deeply sandy and washboarded as it climbed into the looming mountains. I knew this 4000’ climb from 12,500’ to 16,500’ would go slowly with the sandy road and thin air, and expected it to be  an all-day affair…


 Early in the climb there was a faded 2-track jeep road which climbed up the valley floor, avoiding some unnecessary hairpin turns of the main road. After a short mid-morning meal by a ruined stone house, I rode, bounced, and eventually walked my way up the spongy and mossy valley floor for a while. My “shortcut” was clearly not meeting my expectations of efficiency. Eventually the track turned to a narrow trail and ultimately disappeared a few miles up the valley. In order to meet back with the road, I had to climb up a very steep and loose 150’ gravel embankment, which proved to be significantly harder than it appeared. I would find what felt like a solid foothold in the gravel in order to shove my 85lb bike straight up above me, grunting with the effort of a 100% full-body effort. Just as I’d reach the end of my arm stroke (having moved the bike only about 2’ up), I’d often lose my foothold, and slide right back down. Extremely slow going and rather frustrating, but these are the consequences of seeking the off-route routes! The last 15’ were the worst, as I slid back down at least 10 times before ultimately hoisting the bike upside down over my head and virtually throwing it up onto the road above me, then climbing up over the bike to reach the flat graded road. I’m ready to actually RIDE my bike again for a bit.


Eternal switchbacks through piercing high-altitude sun kept me climbing. But the views only got better with every turn.


Big sigh of relief here. As the shadows plodded their way across the ground in response to the late afternoon sun, I paused for a shivery moment atop this 16,500’ pass to layer up for a nice, looooooong descent. 



These photos cannot nearly convey the extreme color contrast among the various layers of rocks as I ripped down the first 5000’ of descending that evening. 

I’ve come to realize that it’s often early morning and late evening, when the rubescent light sets my vista aflame, that I occasionally access a moment of complete awe. In these moments, everywhere I gaze I realize the gift of appreciating the rapturous expression of nature’s unfolding before my eyes. This was one of those moments. Every few hundred meters I would have to stop and just spin around to take in the absurd perfection of the moment. I am so lucky to be here, and to have the time, awareness and senses to ingest this. Infinite thanks. These are the moments I live for. 



I lived in San Francisco for 4 years from 1999 to 2003. During most of that time I worked nights at a famous beatnik bar in North Beach called Vesuvio. It attracted a fantastic mix expressing a wide spectrum of San Francisco’s population, from young to old, rich to poor, lighthearted to despondent, and I loved it. During that time, the drink of choice among our bartenders and servers was a shot of Fernet Branca (an Italian digestif) with a ginger ale back. I soon came to find that the Fernet infatuation had reached far beyond the boundaries of our staff, so much so that I could enter virtually any bar in the city, order that exact combination and the first question I’d be asked was, “What bar do you work at?”. Having a shot of Fernet became the nightly ritual, especially when I worked with my favorite co-bartender, Marcovaldo Antoine Dionysos. Yes, that’s his real name. I’ve since left the bar scene for other endeavors, but once in a while I still order a Fernet with ginger back to relive those brilliant moments at Vesuvio.

What I didn’t know was that the two largest consumers of Fernet in the world, both significantly larger even Italy, are the city of San Francisco (no surprise there) and the country of Argentina. So during my ecstatic descent down this fantastic stretch of mountainous magic, I was pretty surprised to notice an empty bottle of the peculiar bitter spirit cast onto the side of this desolate road as if an empty can of Coors Light. In that juxtapositional experience I had to take a moment and send a virtual hug to Marco, Janet, Allison, Libby, David, Felicia, Maya, Sarah, and the rest of the old Vesuvio guard. We carry our past into our future, and sometimes the two collide in surprising ways. 

It luckily wasn’t until days later, upon realizing Fernet is MORE common down here that Coors Light, that the moment wasn’t quite as serendipitous as I thought, but for me it will always feel special. 


Kilometer marker 4587, South to North. Meaning I could stay on this very road for another 4600km and would eventually reach Tierra del Fuego! I of course had no plan of committing to one road, but still. Pretty cool.


As the descent continued into the following day, the brilliant geological displays also continued.


Over the day, I noticed various elaborate roadside altars, the likes of which I’d not seen ever before. This large display was under an enormous cliff overhang, protected from the occasional rains, framed to highlight its significance I assume.


 Definitely getting to lower altitude! Cacti for the first time in a long time! 


… With fresh new growth!

I rolled through the occasional town, exploring the local specialties of sweet baked goods and adjusting to the small corner stores which had about 500% more food options than what I’d adapted to back in Bolivia.  Unfortunately the increased access came at increased price, about 2-3x what I’d been paying. Well worth it however as I quickly learned I could expect to find fresh deli meat, bread and cheese for sale in even the smallest of villages. I also learned about a biker-friendly phenomenon particular to Argentina in my experience: municipal campgrounds. Most small towns had a small campground that one could inhabit. Most were free, the rest were pretty cheap. So riding late into the evening and landing in a town for a meal would reliably result in a place to crash. Fortunately/unfortunately, I quickly found these campgrounds are well-used by locals. My first night in a camping municipal was in Seclantás, where just after I’d set up my tent in a wind-protetected corner I saw a stream of cars enter the space, set up an enormous barbecue, speakers, and begin a 4-hour long barbecue and awards ceremony for local schoolchildren. While this would normally be a welcome surprise and excuse to learn about some local culture, I was exhausted from a long day exposed to blazing hot sun, and wanted nothing more than to sleep. 

I did my best to take it in stride, welcoming the occasional conversation with curious locals until I could no longer maintain verticality. After that point not even the loudest base woofer could keep me awake. 


The geology of Northern Argentina does not disappoint!  A windy, narrow sand road snaked its way through Monumento Angastaco for a few riding hours, and while the low-altitude sun was almost unbearably hot, the views accounted for it. 





 Dropping further in elevation from the mountains in Angastaco, I almost suddenly transitioned into the arid but comparatively lush Argentinian wine country. Passing one enormous vineyard after another, I enjoyed the contract of vibrant green grapevines reaching infinitely into the rolling hillsides. Back on a stretch of pavement of highway 40 for a time, I quickly reached my next pausing point, the large touristy wine-town of Cafayate. 


I pulled into the large municipal campground past a number of 4×4 recreational vehicles from various parts of the world, and saw in the distance a number of touring bikes leaned up against a wall with a few tents accompanying them.


Super excited to find my friends Neil and Vicki! I’d first met them back in Quito, Ecuador at the casa ciclista, then crossed paths a few other times in Peru, but it had been a while! Given my often highly solitary lifestyle as of late, it is always a huge gift to repeatedly cross paths with the same travelers. We are a small but tight community, and the only longer-term face to face group I have right now. Yay! 

DSC 0014

Having only entered Argentina a few days earlier, I was still getting used to the sudden increased access to amenities. Neil and Vicky walked me through town and shared some of their discoveries thus far, having spent more time in the country already. Among the mind-blowing options were hot water machines places in various locations. Argentinians are fanatical about drinking mate, an herbal tea of sorts that grows down here.

Mate gourd

The ground tea leaves are placed in a small gourd and hot water is poured over them, then the tea is sucked out through a metal straw of sorts called a bombilla. I’ve drank mate for years back in the US but am now realizing it’s not just some trendy hippie drink, the most commonly drank beverage in the country! 

I stayed in Cafayate for 2 days to rest, relax and connect with my two-wheeled community. We ate good food, drank good wine and shared many a strange and interesting travel tale. We also firmed up our plans to meet up in the city of Mendoza over Christmas, about 800 miles South of Cafayate. Plenty of time to get there, but not much time to dottle… 


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