Ruta Los Seis Miles Norte: Real Remote
The Ruta Los Seis Miles Sur and our first experience of truly remote high altitude riding was behind us. However, after a few days rest in the sleepy desert town of Fiambala we were ready to head back up to the Puna and complete our journey through this epic region of South America. In town we were fortunate enough to run into Caspar, a stand up guy from England, he’d just finished cycling the Northern route we were going to embark on. A kindred spirit; instantly we hit things off, forming a bike gang. Three days of banter, stories, bike nerdery and eating an absurd quantity of ice cream ensued. One final lazy afternoon in the Plaza and we bid him farewell and good luck as we cruised out of town in opposite directions.
Once more our bicycles were tanks, laden with supplies for 18 days. Although this time it wasn’t quite as much of a shock to the system. A hot and sweaty day of cycling tarmac took us Northwards, late in the evening we reached the village of Punta De Agua, buying bread and eggs for that evenings camp. A few kilometres outside the village we cooked up our bounty and dozed off in the warm desert air. The following morning a group of workers watched us intently as we wrestled our bikes over the rickety bridge they were repairing and the subsequent stream crossing. We’d be getting rather wet this day as we followed a meandering river up a canyon.
I still harboured a fear of river crossings since almost getting washed away down in Patagonia, and felt a little apprehension as we neared our first crossing. The first couple went smoothly. As I was wading through the third crossing things went awry. Here the river was narrower, meaning a larger volume of water was being funnelled through a smaller area. Two thirds across the river and I felt the current firmly grab my bike, it tugged and pushed the bike, fortunately I had a secure footing. I managed to remain calm and called out to Nathan who had already crossed; he was able to come back to my aid and together we hoisted the bike to the riverbank.
I was a little shaken but we pushed onwards, snaking back and forth over the river countless times more. Each crossing passed without incident and as we got further up the canyon the river became increasingly tame. Near the end of the canyon we were basically just cycling through puddles. The canyon opened out into a wider valley and here we found Las Papas. This leafy little village represented the last settlement we would come across for around two weeks. A long day was capped off with a slog of a hikeabike up from the valley floor. We arrived at the top of the track exhausted after a physically demanding day, but in awe at the waves of mountains that lay off to our West. That night we camped in an old animal enclosure and cooked on an open fire.
The long climb continued - after-all we were gaining a couple of thousand meters to reach the Puna again. We set off at a quick pace, fuelled by large breakfasts, but the trail soon steepened and we found ourselves pushing our heavily laden mules once again. The plan was to stop at Termas Los Banos, a secluded thermal spring, and have an easy half day. The incline however had other intentions, and what was supposed to be a chilled 13KM was in-fact a several hour ordeal.
The views however were spectacular and as the trail twisted its way along a cliffside some sections were rideable. It was hard not to marvel at what a fun downhill this would be if riding the other direction. Late in the afternoon we rolled into the Termas. After a quickly cooked lunch whilst hiding in the shade we took dips in the pool. Unsurprisingly given the locations inaccessibility we had the whole place to ourselves, bobbing around like a rubber duck in the perfect temperature water I felt refreshed and content.
In the icy morning we had a steep haul back up to our main trail. This hikeabike soon got the blood flowing and at the top of the climb we were feeling warm. Staring Southwards, the direction we’d come from, we were treated to a stunning cloud inversion. The sensation of literally being above the clouds is always a special one and made for a beautiful start to the days cycling. We refilled our bottles in a cool mountain stream and I greedily guzzled the fresh water. The track rose at the perfect incline, barely noticeable as a climb, a few sandy patches required good balance to get through, but as the hours ticked by we steadily gained altitude. The environment changed too; vegetation grew infrequent, until it disappeared altogether, things got drier and the landscape became increasingly moon like - we had reached the Puna again.
We made a navigational error which saw us off trail and traversing the surface of the moon in order to reach the top of a smaller pass. Going was slow and we weaved in and out of boulders and sandpits. Lunch was scoffed at the top of the windy pass; we gazed out to the West and were our route lead. Vast rolling valleys and dusty peaks gave way to one another as far as the eye could see in all directions; and not a sign of humanity anywhere.
Our first extended period of downhill in this extraordinary environment proved incredibly fun and provided a welcome respite from the previous days climbing. The sand had been sculpted by the wind into an ocean of waves, our track cutting a path directly through the centre. We dropped down towards a salar, following Vicuna singletrack. As late afternoon came around the wind, like clockwork, picked up. We battled the days final kilometres around the Salars edge, watched by uninterested flocks of flamingoes. The wind howled all night long, hidden behind a rock wall we were somewhat sheltered from its full force.
Frost coated bikes and tents come morning. The first 5000M pass of our route lay ahead of us, tentatively I started cycling, Nathan had started a little way ahead and off in the distance I could see a tiny dot slowly grinding its way up the valley. Headphones in, music on loud and into a rhythm. Little by little we worked our way upwards. The gradient was kind and we could ride for a good portion of the climb. We tried to find a water source that our friend and route creator Taneli had indicated, but the best we could get was some sandy, silty pools. We passed on this and instead sat in silent exhaustion whilst lunch bubbled away on our stoves.
The final 3KM of the pass were a real struggle. The track disappeared entirely. The air was shockingly lacking in oxygen and the incline became ever steeper as we rose. Every few steps we had to stop pushing our bikes, gasping for breath and psyching ourselves up for the next stint of pushing. I set myself mental targets “Ok Toby, 20 steps this time” or “You have to reach that rock”, my face was contorted into some hideous grimaces as I did battle with the final few hundred meters of the pass.
Sure enough though, we emerged exhausted but elated atop the pass. We leant our bikes on the Cairn as we recovered. There was a decent amount of snow lying up here and we scooped it into our empty bottles. Coming down the other side of the pass felt like dropping into the jaws of the devil, it was a point of no return. The descent was steep and sandy, but oh so fun, we whooped and hollered as we descended into the remoter still belly of the Puna beast.
Riding down a dried out riverbed the impressive conical Volcan Peinado came into view. I don’t believe there exits a more quintessentially Volcano looking volcano on the whole planet. It was one of the most striking sights of my travels. Coming lower the sand was increasingly deep and I had a small tumble off the bike. We could see the tracks of Caspars thin tyres wobbling like a geriatric up the mountain - unbelievably it looked as though he’d cycled up this!
The downhill levelled out and soon enough we were pushing through sand and riding at sub 7kmph speeds. We navigated our way through the maze of a lava field and crackled dry mudflat. On the shores of Laguna Del Peinado I collapsed, totally knackered, sitting in the dirt. It had been a very physically demanding day and my coma like sleep reflected this. A little scorpion scuttling about just meters from my tent reminded me how desperately I needed to get my zippers fixed and left me a little paranoid for the following months camping.
More pushing, more sand and more struggling - but the Puna has a strange way of challenging and rewarding in near equal measure. Hours of pushing will give way to one of the most exhilarating downhills ever, or crippling headwinds will fade away to a morning so still you can hear your heartbeat. There is always another out of this world vista over the next valley or a volcano striped in the most unbelievable colours. After a short but picturesque cycle around the Salars shoreline we lugged our bikes through sand for a good stretch. Looking back the views towards the imposing Volcan Peiado were always breathtaking.
We were in a very dry area, every water source we came across was salty. There was however a water source marked on our maps that involved a hike up a steep slope. We stashed the bikes and loaded our backpacks with empty bottles. Half an hour later we reached a creek full of lush greenery and long grasses, the noise of flowing water was a reassuring guide. With full water bottles and full bellies after lunch we were soon rolling again.
After a selection of short, shabby climbs we dropped down to the level of Salar De Antofalla. The track - if you can call it that - was directly on the Salar. This was the crustiest, roughest, bumpiest salty surface imaginable. At a agonisingly slow pace we made our way around the 30KM of the Salar. Backsides numb and wrists aching we had no choice but to push on, there seemed to be no good line through this mess, sometimes a wheel would even break through the salty crust with a jolt. The wind blew alternately as a side wind and as a rare tailwind, giving us a slight boost in speed. That evening we camped out on the salt, behind a rocky outcrop - the only shelter for miles around.
Spirits raised the next day as we left the awful surface of the Salar behind and started climbing a pass over to the connecting valley. It was steep and sandy as ever, alternating between riding and pushing we gained height. A couple of cruel false summits fooled us, but before too long we were rolling down the other side. A cloud of dust in the distance; “Nathan! There’s a car!” I exclaimed in disbelief. Sure enough there was the first human we’d seen in several days, we met the car at a crossroads, I think the driver - a mining prospector - was just as surprised to see us out there.
He invited us to meet him at a nearby oasis. The hospitality we experienced here was truly humbling, a vast spread of food laid out for us. After days of rationing pasta and lentils, we gawped in disbelief at the assortment of food and drink in front of us, staring wide eyed at each other, struggling to comprehend our good luck. It was hands down the best meal I ever recalled eating, each bite tasting better than the last and revitalising my being. Plates licked clean we said goodbye to Bilo - the owner of this oasis refuge - and our miner friends, and with strength renewed mounted our steeds, heading back into the wilderness.