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Archive for the ‘Argentina’ Category

The Seco Pass Loop From Nam

Saturday, December 17th, 2005

It is always the way, the hardest things in life are normally also the most rewarding. Do we ride straight to San Pedro De Atacama on a paved road after 12 days of random camping. Or do a 521km loop over the Andes twice before heading to San Pedro De Atacama? Which was only 60km from where we would start. The Seco Pass and the Jama Pass were calling. This would mean riding on sand from 2,300m altitude to 4,800m before descending into the Seco Pass and Argentina. Then returning via Pasa Jama via many 4,300m to 5,100m passes. Then descending into San Pedro De Atacama. All in all a 5 day loop with few inhabitants and scarce food and water in what we would find out is the least inhabitable corner of the earth due to its altitude and solar radiation – it´s got to be good for you!

In true kiwi style we headed straight up the Seco pass stopping in a small town (100 people) to stock up on some food and water. The first day was just a slog, all up hill and on sand too thick to ride at times. We managed 87km and just as it was nearing time to camp descended into a valley and a Salar full of pink Flamingos, “Salar De Aguas Calientes”. (Warm Water Salt Flat). To our delight bath temperature water on the edge of the salar eased the pain of aching muscles and gave us our first proper wash for 10 days. Any longer and Angela would have refused to ride behind me. This was paradise – we were in a natural thermal bath as the sun set and the flamingos walked casually across the salar. We would have had a day off had we had enough food and water.

The following terrain was filled with multicolored mountains sculpted by the wind and bright blue lagoons. Arriving at the Argentinian border where between 0 and 4 people pass per day, we camped the night then the real test came. The guards on the border assured us we could find food and water in a town called Coachua so we set out on our 50km easy day only to find this town resembled an old Inca ruin. No one had lived there for a long time. We were planning on buying food and water there but no chance. We remembered there was another town and a sign said 25km to Catua which we knew had people. We set off without food or water and got through the first 10km ok, 20km tired, 30km puzzled, 35km panicking. We had all Angela’s and my panniers on my bike and were both suffering from dehydration and exhaustion. It started to get dark and the plan was to put the tent up and for me to ride back to the crossroads we had come from in the morning and wait for a passing truck – there is normally one a day. As it got dark we were both calm but quietly terrified. None of the roads were on our map, we had no food or water, the road was like riding on the beach and we were in the middle of the Andes mountains! I started to think about where on the road I would lie so a passing truck would see me if I made it the nearly 50km on sand back the way we came. The sun dropped below the crest of the mountains and the temperature dropped to icy cold. Angela was holding back the tears when she saw something white in the distance resembling a building. An hour and a half later we came upon Catua, the town we were looking for – amazing! After 100km in the sand and about 4h without anything to eat and drink we found a town. About 150 inhabitants, all Inca living in mud houses. As we rode in kids came up and followed us to the town centre we rode up to the first adult we saw and got straight to the point. “We need food and water”, is there anywhere to buy food? “No not until the morning”. He had a better look at us as we came closer and said “Come with me” and he took us to the local (only one for 500km) boarding school. They were just finishing dinner and had some left which we inhaled as it was put in front of us. I then almost threw the cup of water into my face in my haste to drink it. The kids all thought this was very funny and that we were very odd and asked us why we were cycling. Nothing we could tell them convinced them we were at all sane. They also thought it was very funny that the sign said 25km when it is actually 45km. I couldn’t help but laugh at this too, as we were now safe. I then found out we were only 15km from where we started 100km ago and that the 15km had much less sand. I did not have the heart to tell Angela this until the next day.

We bought food after trying for an hour to get change for 10 pounds, which was a ridiculous amount of money for one person to have, so I found out. At about 4-5km per hour we set off the next morning barely turning the peddles until we stopped to talk to an Inka man who was tracking Llamas for his family to eat. When he left we had a sleep and ate about a day and a half of food for lunch. Got going and finally made it to the Argentinian border with Chile 94km later where there was food and water – wahooooo.

We were dead on our feet, even the half a 1kg of rice fruit and vegetables we had that night did not recover us fully from the day we ran out of food and water. But we desperately wanted a day off. We had 172km of the loop to go, were at 4,500m Altitude and had 6 or 7 passes of over 5,000m (though of course we did not know this at the time). The truck drivers at the boarder all offered us lifts and when we explained we were riding for charity and had to ride the whole way as people were sponsoring us, they thought it was the craziest excuse they had ever herd. They laughed louder when I said I liked cycling and wished us luck and took pity on us being unable to afford the bus.

Anything above 5,000m and the altitude really kicks in. We were now 13 days without a break and well over 1,000km. Fatigue was starting to set in well and truly. We had to hyperventilate before drinking while riding or our legs would fatigue so badly we could not pedal. I have never puffed so much in my life. Driven by the thought of having a day off in San Pedro De Atacama where we had been 60km from 5 days earlier, we rolled in at 8:30pm, 9:42 hours and 172km later. In the last 40km we descended from 4,900m to 2,400m which was amazing and saved us. Our water bottles all shrivelled up on the descent as the air pressure increased and I could drink again without my legs fatiguing from lack of oxygen.

We went through customs, had the last little bit of our food confiscated (not allowed to carry it across borders) then we stumbled into town in the pitch black trying to find a hostel, which we did.

This loop really brought us back to basics. We are now ecstatic to have enough food and water to drink and the thought of enough water to shower is paradise. I can really understand how the few people we met on this ride can be totally content knowing only the mountains they grew up in and how to survive day to day. Probably happier than 95% of the modern world.