Cycling Through the Atacama: The Driest Desert in the World

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The Atacama desert, which happens to be the driest desert in the world, was to be our very first desert cycling experience. To prepare, we bought many three liters bottles and a six liter MSR hydration bladder, so that each of us could carry 11 liters of water on our bikes. Though that seems like a lot when you are carrying the extra eleven kilos up a pass, we now know that it barely lasts us two days. We then set out from Calama right at sunrise (7h30) for a very hot, boring, and different kind of ride. For the first sixty kilometers we steadily but very gradually climbed up to 3,400m (1,200m gain), the highest we have been since Georgia, yet one of the lowest passes we will encounter in the next four or five months, before a beautiful descent down into San Pedro de Atacama.

My four dollar wide brimmed extremely dorky hat! This thing is essential in a high altitude desert so as silly as it looks, you will see quite a lot of it these next few months!

My four dollar wide brimmed extremely dorky hat! This thing is essential in a high altitude desert so as silly as it looks, you will see quite a lot of it these next few months!

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Our shadows were pretty amusing to watch!

Our shadows were pretty amusing to watch!

Hanging out on a break. No shade to hide in here!

Hanging out on a break. No shade to hide in here!

Besides the paved road, there was sand as far as the eye could see. We sometimes saw trucks kicking up dust as they made their way to various mines as northern Chile holds the largest mines in the world.

Besides the paved road, there was sand as far as the eye could see. We sometimes saw trucks kicking up dust as they made their way to various mines as northern Chile holds the largest mines in the world.

Though there were miners and buses and a few cars, the road was definitely not busy.

Though there were miners and buses and a few cars, the road was definitely not busy.

Once we got up and over the pass (3,400) the other side was greener, at least by desert standards, and we finally saw a little bit of life.

Once we got up and over the pass (3,400) the other side was greener, at least by desert standards, and we finally saw a little bit of life.

Bolivia lies right on the other side of this mountain!

Bolivia lies right on the other side of this mountain!

Finding camping here is so easy.. You simply step right off the road and voila, it seems as if you are in the middle of nowhere.

Finding camping here is so easy.. You simply step right off the road and voila, it seems as if you are in the middle of nowhere.

And the camping is simply fantastic!! It's the only time you are alone, truly alone, with only the bright shinning stars to keep you company. At night it cools down so it's nice and cold, which makes for the perfect night.

And the camping is simply fantastic!! It’s the only time you are alone, truly alone, with only the bright shinning stars to keep you company. At night it cools down so it’s nice and cold, which makes for the perfect night.

And the sunrises, they were stupendous. As we woke up early every mowning we got to experience one every single day.

And the sunrises, they were stupendous. As we woke up early every mowning we got to experience one every single day.

Every little piece of life is precious out here. It's amazing that these tiny plants can survive the harsh sun, cold nights, and waterless years. Go little guy go!

Every little piece of life is precious out here. It’s amazing that these tiny plants can survive the harsh sun, cold nights, and waterless years. Go little guy go!

Though we didn't see them during our first day of cycling before the pass, we did find quite a few of these shrubs as we approached San Pedro.

Though we didn’t see them during our first day of cycling before the pass, we did find quite a few of these shrubs as we approached San Pedro.

The last dozen or so kilometers before San Pedro were much more interesting as there were various rock formations all around.

The last dozen or so kilometers before San Pedro were much more interesting as there were various rock formations all around.

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Though we were pretty set on cycling (meaning no buses) through South America, once we arrived in Santiago we decided to bus up north for a few different reasons. For starters, we are beginning to run out of money, and Chile has been incredibly expensive so we are impatient to get back to more affordable counties, plus, we would like to spend more time in Peru during the dry season meaning that we need to be headed that way soon. We also had no desire to cycle through the whole Atacama desert (1,500km of no shade… no thanks!), and though we could have crossed over and cycled through Argentina instead, we have heard that section is not too exciting and that we would be cycling everyday just to get farther north and re-find the beautiful mountains again near Bolivia. Do, after a week in Santiago – a much needed break that we spent helping a young Chilean warmshowers gal remodel her house – we caught a surprisingly cheap night bus (40 bucks instead of the normal 90) in order to arrive straight dab in the desert.

Kevin and our host trying to get the toilet flushing.

Kevin and our host trying to get the toilet flushing.

Now that we are headed into Bolivia, and the remote high altitude jeep track “roads” and small villages that come along with it, we probably won’t have much wifi, and when we do, it may not be strong enough to upload photos or blog entries. So if you don’t hear from us in the coming weeks, don’t worry because we are sure to be having a lot of “fun” struggling to push our bikes through the sand in the Bolivian altiplano!

The next few weeks, through the Lagunas in the high altitude altiplano of Bolivia, and the oh so famous Salar(s) should be some of our most interesting scenery yet!

The next few weeks, through the Lagunas in the high altitude altiplano of Bolivia, and the oh so famous Salar(s) should be some of our most interesting scenery yet!

For a photo of the day and other updates follow me on facebook here, and for some awkwardly cropped photos from our journey, follow us on Instagram @awanderingphoto!

7 thoughts on “Cycling Through the Atacama: The Driest Desert in the World

  1. Very nice pictures as usually! We really enjoy reading your blog- every time! Good luck in Bolivia!
    Best wishes
    Daniella and Bogdan

  2. Ok , I won’t worry about you, but do post as soon as you can, and stay safe, and hydrated! And running out of cash? I just sent you 25$

  3. Beautiful photo, Shrine. I’ve visited the Atacama (by bus, from Santiago) and it’s one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been…especially those night skies. Cycling through would certainly be tough. Good on you two for making the journey and will be thinking of you through Bolivia!

  4. I enjoy the photos of places I can only dream of now. Thanks for sharing. Wishing you continued joy. I saw the pic of the cute fox. How do you store you food from the critters?

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