Pedalling to the Puna – 29/11/10-1/1/11

After Peru we were tired and even skinnier than usual, so it was 10 days after reaching Aplao near Arequipa before we set off up the tedious hill from San Pedro de Atacama to the Paso Jama and Argentina. The sensation of tarmac beneath our wheels was slightly alien, but only going at 4.5kph was by now not altogether unfamiliar.
We had climbed over one 4,800m pass and were heading for another when we suffered our first real mechanical breakdown of the trip. Until now our Long Haul Truckers have given 15 months of faithful service, much of it on some interesting ‘roads’. But on this perfect, flat tarmac Haz’s rim gave way, developed a 10cm long crack, and the metal had begun cutting up her rear tyre and brake pad before we stopped and realized that we had a problem. At first we shook our heads, then scratched them. Should we hitch forward and miss crossing the Andes, or head back to San Pedro?
Fortunately we were on the busiest road we’d been on in a while, and distressed gringa waving bike wheel took no time in being rescued. Within a few minutes Haz was whizzing back downhill to San Pedro with a group of soroche-suffering German tourists, whilst Neil whiled away the day then camped by the side of the road at 4,600m.
It turns out not all bicycle mechanics know how to build a wheel. When Haz returned early next morning we realized the mechanic had mixed up the spokes, so the new wheel was off-centre and the brake couldn’t be connected. Oh well it was only a 1,000m descent to Susques with plenty of nice tailwinds, so a second brake was more a luxury than a necessity… In Susques Haz spent a few hours rebuilding the wheel correctly.
We were delighted to be back in Argentina. Land of steak, ice cream, bakeries, charming people and terrible haircuts. Unfortunately Susques appeared to have none of the these, except the haircuts, so we didn’t stay long. An often sandy three day ride led us under La Polvorilla viaduct and to the foot of Nevado Queva. We began worrying that maybe we’d remembered the land of silver with rose tinted spectacles. This road surface was as bad as any we’d cycled in Bolivia and Peru and we had eaten an awful lot of corned beef since our arrival, but no steak.
We climbed Nevado Queva up a valley teeming with donkeys, which was a nice change from the usual vicuñas. We adore the delicate, soft, ginger camelids but were seeing so many of this apparently endangered species that it was nice to see some plain old donkeys. And to be serenaded at night in our tent by a herd of braying donkeys was simply something beautiful.
Our next stop was Argentina’s loneliest town, Antofagasta de la Sierra. 230km from tiny Pocitos to the north and only the equally tiny El Peñon for company on the 200kms of road to the south. We were expecting a long slog on a terrible road, so went prepared with 5 days water and food, but in the event it was easier than expected and we were in Antofagasta in 3 days, arriving a few days before Christmas.

We hadn’t yet heard a hohoho, been subjected to any Christmas tunes (gracias a Dios) or seen any Christmas decorations so on arriving in town we weren’t exactly filled with festive spirit. Luckily however, we turned up just in time to receive a Christmas hamper (well, plastic bag) of food and booze being handed out by the mayor to all residents.

We spent Christmas Day in the traditional manner, by going for a nice walk. Opening our pressies at 6,000m on the summit was the highlight of the hike up Sierra Laguna Blanca – a rarely climbed (and as we found out quite dull) mountain in Catamarca.

After 3 weeks in Argentina we finally found what we were longing for in the small town of Belen. A bakery at the entrance to town, an ice-cream parlour on the plaza, a restaurant that served up delicious and huge steaks, some good local wine, super friendly locals…at last we felt like we were back! We also found a bike shop where we could buy 2 new rims (one of Neil’s also broke) and a mechanic who could build us a decent wheel.

Hogmanay was spent watching locals setting off fireworks out of their hands in Tinogasta, before being woken in a drunken daze by an earthquake 4 hours into the new year. Then a short hop on New Year’s Day took us to Fiambala, base for expeditions to the Puna de Atacama – the area with the highest concentration of 6,000m peaks anywhere outside Asia. And that’s where we’re headed for most of January – leaving our bikes in town and going off with rucksacks to see what we can climb climb climb.

Cycling stats:
Days getting from San Pedro to Fiambala – 34 days
Distance – 1,165km
Time cycling – 94hrs
Average speed – 12.4kph
Cycle days – 18
Rainy cycle days – 2
Maximum speeds – 70.0kph (N), 61.0kph (H) (H would like to point out the only reason for this rare ‘win’ for N is that this was a day she had no rear brake, so she didn’t want to go too fast)
Unpaved roads – 619km
Longest day – 112km
100+km days – 2
Punctures – 0H(14), 0N(9)

Total amount climbed – 11,780m
Maximum altitude reached – 4,836m
Most climbed in one day – 1,856m
1000m+ climb days – 1
4,000m passes crossed – 5
Steepest climb – 18%

Number of cycle tourists we met en route – 2 (Phillipe and partner, Switzerland)

Accommodation – 15 beds, 1 camp, 17 wild camps, 1 on transport

Hottest temperature cycled in: 37C
New Chilean beers drunk – Kross Amber Ale
New Argentinian beers drunk – Norte Porter

Hiking Stats:
Days of hiking – 5
Distance – 76kms
Height ascended – 5,010m
Peaks climbed – Nevado Queva (6,155m), Sierra Laguna Blanca (6,008m)

Lots of fascinating new stats on the updated stats page.

We also found fast internet in Belen, so have uploaded 8 new videos.


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