Ruta Los Seis Miles Norte: Dunes and Desolation
Updated: Nov 15, 2019
“The Dune of Doom” loomed up in-front of us. We craned our heads upwards staring at the task ahead - over 200M of sheer elevation gain in less than a kilometre and all on loose, deep sand. I’d been dreading the hikeabike, fortunately we’d had a huge lunch the day previously and a restful sleep. Nonetheless the task was daunting. The pushing begun, as we worked our way further up the dune it became increasingly steep. Feet slipped and sunk, bikes were cumbersome and uncooperative in the sand. Walk a few steps, rest, brakes locked on so the bike didn’t go tumbling off down the dune. Push on a few meters more. This routine went on for some time. It was tough, but not as hard as I’d expected. After just around an hour we emerged atop the dune, scaring off a small herd of Vicunas.
A little break and we were darting down the other side into the next valley. Dropping into a new valley on the Puna is always an exciting experience. We were greeted by sometimes subtle but always welcome changes in the landscape, there is remarkable variety for an environment so hostile to life. There was also a sense of discovery as we explored the nuances of each valley. We rolled downhill towards Laguna Cajeros and I felt a wave of exhaustion passing over me - the mornings exertions were catching up to us. Stopping by the Laguna for lunch, there was a battered old stone Refugio, in the shade this provided we cooked and filtered some fresh water from nearby pools.
One more pass stood between us and that evenings camp. Heavily loaded with water for the next dry stretch we started climbing. The track was sandy but rideable, especially with a little extra air let out of the tyres. Wobbling and winding, we gradually worked our way upwards. A few hundred meters from the top a ferocious headwind came blowing over from the other side of the pass and we resorted to pushing. A sandy decent brought us to Laguna Patos, the wind and deep sand saw me tumble off the bike a couple of times. We pitched tents behind a couple of boulders and shortly afterwards fell asleep. At this stage of our journey across the Puna I could feel the demands of the past month catching up to me. Each day we must have been burning an absurd amount of calories; I was ravenous and my bland rations of oats, pasta and lentils were not cutting it.
A cold wind awoke us and we began the ascent of the following pass - another +5000M pass. Drawn out over almost 20km the incline was a kind one, which was fortunate considering the sandy surface. Cycling up the pass I contemplated our location. It was so spectacularly remote, I wondered how many people would come this way in a year, and when perhaps the next person may come by. It was an unsettling yet simultaneously beautiful train of thought. The idea of something going wrong out here was daunting. However, to me it seemed fantastic and special that places this remote and isolated still exist on our planet. In these vast wildernesses life is boiled down to its simplest elements. Movement, water, food and shelter. The endless rows of mountains and dunes acting as a blank canvass for our minds to wander. Nathan and myself drawing strength and companionship from each other while experiencing a journey through a place that is hard to articulate.
The final 3km of the pass turned into a struggle as the track started twisting more, steepening and finishing with a few switchbacks. Once more we rasped for oxygen and resorted to pushing. We pushed together, setting ourselves targets and urging each other forwards. On the final switchback we stopped to fill bottles with snow before reaching the top. Another sandy track took us towards the valley floor, we both struggled with the loose surface; falling off a few times.
Further down we managed to divert off the track and ride a dried out riverbed that led us straight to a Refugio we planned to spend the night. A basic cavelike stone structure, we made ourselves comfortable here out of the wind. A curious desert fox prowled about outside, no doubt curious as to what was going on and probably hoping for some scraps of food.
The cycling the following morning was dreamlike; a special day on the Puna. No wind, glorious sunshine, tranquil silence and flamingos feeding in the shallows of Salar De Archibarca. Our route didn’t have too much climbing, just an undulating track across the Puna. I noticed some unusual tracks on the sand - two thin wheels had passed by this way, always the same distance apart. Nathan and myself realised these must be the tracks of a German couple we’d heard about. They had set out with the dating task of walking across the Puna with two hand pushed carts. This was almost a month previously and we had been wondering if we would meet them, but it appeared as though they’d taken a different route to either resupply or bail out of their insane mission. We hoped they were okay, it was tough cycling this area, but walking it with a heavy cart was almost unfathomable to me!
An incredibly steep dune plummeted to a sandy plateau, we crossed some crusty salt pools and drifted by a few abandoned refugios. The track opened out onto an expansive Salar. The surface was again awful, crusty and made for an uncomfortable few hours cycling. As the afternoon wore on my backside and wrists grew increasingly numb. Our destination was visible up a cliff on the other side of the slat flat - Mina La Causalidad - an abandoned mining town forgotten in the expanse of the Puna.
Edging closer we found ourselves at the foot of a final climb. With light growing low and the wind becoming increasingly fearsome we had little choice but to get up to the town. Alternating between riding and walking we drew on our dwindling energy reserves to reach the top. In the sand I saw several large Puma tracks and droppings, and again I marvelled at such an apex predators ability to survive not just here but throughout near enough the whole length of the Andes.
The sight of Mina La Casualidad was a reassuring one; we had shelter for the night, it had been a long 60km day and we were both utterly knackered. However, the scene was also unnerving. This community that must have once been bustling with life and activity, now sitting here decaying and left to the whims of the Puna. Paint peeled off of walls, window panes were shattered and rust coated the beams of mining machinery. There was an eerie silence, just the howling of the wind and the ghosts of a distant past for company. We made our way to the church at the top of town, here we set up our beds for the night on the altar and gobbled our dinners in silence.
A pair of lonesome dogs were lurking about outside the church - what a strange place for them to live, they appeared thin and nervous. A whole town to themselves, it raised many questions; what did they eat? How did they get here? And what about the bitterly cold winters? Feeling somewhat human again after eating we watched a film on Nathans tablet before bed, our slumber soundtracked by the whistling of the wind through the church belltower.
In the morning we got some answers to our questions about the dogs. A car stopped close-by and honked the horn stirring us from our sleep. We didn’t go outside, but it became obvious that someone, perhaps some miners were feeding these dogs. I smashed the ice in the towns spring and we filled up with full water capacity. This stretch without water promised to be the longest at around 110km and containing several large passes. With bicycles suitably heavy we began the climb up and away from our ghost town. The vista over the Salar we had cycled yesterday was sublime, and looking back at the scale of the ground we’d traversed I felt grateful to be journeying through this wilderness on my bicycle.
A slow climb that was all rideable and we found ourselves on the best road in over a week. We whizzed along and gazed off at the majestic Volcan Llullaillaco (6739M) that dominated the horizon and signified the border with Chile. At the shoreline of another Salar it was evident we were weary and had been out here for some time. Morale seemed low, I was sick of the same meal, we bickered about where best to stop for lunch, covered in dust and looking haggard we ate quietly - knowing we needed the fuel for the final large passes ahead. Off to our East lay an appealing looking road that would bypass the two toughest passes and bring us close to the border with Chile. I’d be lying if I said the temptation wasn’t strong. Nonetheless, determinedly or perhaps stupidly we forged on with our route.
We used the last hours of daylight to begin ascending the first pass towards Volcan Llullaillaco. We only made it about 200M up the climb due to string winds and exhaustion. The situation seemed a little desperate. There was no shelter and the temperatures were decreasing along with the light. I wandered off down a gully and realised it gave a little cover, not much, but something. There we constructed another of our rockwalls for protection, Nathan subsequently pitching his tent and me opting to bivvy. The sunset across the Salar was magical and whilst the night was cold without my tent it wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d anticipated.
We started the climb at different times and each got into our own little rhythms and worlds as we forced the pedals round one revolution at a time, each crank edging us closer to the top. I reached the summit to find Nathan waiting for me on a rock, we high fived, this was the last challenging pass of the route and represented a turning point of sorts - despite having almost 300km to the routes ending. Another downhill, another valley bottom and one more climb. I stuck to Nathans back tyre as we meandered up the switchbacks, he set a fantastic pace and the climb felt as though it was over before it had begun.
The descent towards Laguna Socompa was as thrilling as they come. We were euphoric from passing the crux of the route and the colours of the Puna seemed all the more radiant. Bombing the descent, we dirifted through the countless switchbacks and caught air off of some bumps on the way down. It is memories like these on a bicycle that I’ll never forget. Laugna Socompa came in sight, and as though some higher power flicked a switch, the wind started blowing, slowing us to a crawl. In the distance we spied a cloud of dust and the first car in days, another sign we were nearing the border. With the setting sun we reached a cluster of deserted buildings and opted to spend the night in an old chapel.
Exploring the old buildings was fascinating. It was like a snapshot in time. Who were these hardy souls who had eked out a living in such a harsh and lonesome place? And why did it appear as though they had left in such a hurry? The house was still full of belongings; clothing, furnishings and perhaps most spookily family portraits. To hazard a guess it appeared to be from the 40s or 50s, and provided an enthralling if uncanny window into life on the Puna in years gone-by.
The final push to the border post involved a ride along some forgotten railroad tracks. We wrestled the bikes up a large slope to reach the track and then spent the remainder of the morning cycling along the railroad towards the border. For me the novelty of riding along the railroad soon wore off. The views across the valley where we had been yesterday were glorious, but the endless bumping across wooden sleepers and the thousands of thorns we had to dodge or plough through were frustrating.
When the isolated and windswept Paso Socompa came into view I thought about how this was my final time leaving Argentina on the trip and dwelt upon all the great times I’d had in the country. The Argentinian border officials spared all niceties and hastily stamped us out - I think maybe we interrupted lunch or a siesta.
The Chilean side of the border took considerably longer. We were probably there for close to four hours. Paso Socompa is a remote border crossing only open to cyclists and hikers. I think we were only the 13th people to cross in a whole year. Safe to say the Chilean border guards didn’t exactly have their act together. We waited for an age whilst they tried to call though to immigration control. The poor Cabinero doing our paperwork then couldn’t find the entry stamp (rather essential for a border post) and to make matters even more amusing his pen ran out and he couldn’t find another. We tried our hardest not to laugh. Whilst waiting a guard brought us mountains of mashed potato and some fresh apples. He told us during winter the Argentinian border closes and they go home, but the Cabineros stay there all winter; 3M of snow seals them off, temperatures hit -25C and they pass the time by snowboarding and watching tv - a lot of tv presumably.
Passports and documents finally in order we rolled into Chile. That night we spent like American hobos of the 1920’s, sleeping in an abandoned freight carriage. A memorable, if a little noisy (the wind rattled a metal panel most of the night) place to sleep. The next three days passed by fairly uneventfully and saw us making a steady return to civilisation. As we dropped in elevation and became less remote temperatures rose and cars and people populated our lives once again.
We bumped along some more rail tracks with views across the desert to some formidable volcanos. One afternoon a group of miners treated us to the biggest lunch we’d had in recent memory. They begun by bringing us a carton of pot noodles and when they saw how rapidly and ravenously we demolished the whole carton, the food just kept coming. We left their camp fuller than imaginable. After weeks of bland rations it was more than my shrivelled stomach could take and I had to stop many times throughout the afternoon to relieve myself!
The first shop we reached in 15 days was a glorious occasion. I think the sweet old Chilean mama who owned the place must have thought she’d hit the jackpot. Two gringos with bottomless stomachs and a craving for just about everything she was selling. We must have sat outside for about 3 hours eating, drinking and cooking. I think it provided quite the spectacle for the locals. Tarmac under the tyres was an unusual sensation, this band of smooth black asphalt took us straight into San Pedro De Atacama. Here we concluded our Puna saga and toasted our success with refreshing ales. I messaged my family - “I’m alive and back in civilisation”.