We’ve never fallen in love with San Pedro de Atacama, despite its evident charms. One of them being that bikes are the most common form of transport. Another being that it’s the launch point for some wonderful trips into the mountains to the east – Paso Sico, or the Bolivian Lagunas, for example.
Recently (on GE, surprise surprise) we spotted another exciting looking route from town: climbing up 5980m Cerro Sairecabur to 5500m, traversing for 5km across its vast crater, then descending a small track on the south side of the mountain, which heads towards Laguna Verde, before veering right, past Licancabur, back to town.
Having met Anna in Huaraz, then again in Uyuni, we were delighted to find her camping in San Pedro, and that for once our plans could coincide for a few days. One of the grittiest people we’ve ever met, Anna has been enjoying way-off-the-beaten-track adventures for years now, since setting off from Alaska in 2009. Being another who puts a healthy dose of ripio into her porridge every morning, this loop was right up her street, and we were pleased that no convincing was needed to persuade her to come along on the trip.
It turned into a good’un.
From San Pedro at 2400m, it’s a 60km climb up to the Universidad de Chile telescope at 5540m on Sairecabur. It begins nice and gently with 30km of hard dirt, which is as good as tarmac.
To the mountain turnoff at 4300m the gradients are mostly gentle. There is this one short, steep section however.
After 44km of near constant climbing we decide to camp at 4450m, right by the track in a spot that will get some nice early sun. The summit of Sairecabur is the breast-shaped hump on the left of the shot. Its huge crater into which the road climbs is to the right.
In the morning the climb continues. The surface is reasonably good, though a constant thin layer of sand makes forward motion harder than it otherwise would be.
At 5400m the road ceases to be motorable. To this point it had been almost completely rideable, but at this height penitentes block the road’s switchbacks, and it becomes too steep to ride.
These snow and ice formations only occur in the high Andes. And on Mars, apparently.
At 5400m, only the most persistent of ninjas was still hunting us down…
When penitentes block the road, the jeeps make new shortcuts. Some of them are quite steep – two people are needed to shove each bike up the hill. (Neil promises he was holding the camera horizontal for this shot.)
We reach the telescope in mid afternoon and set up camp. In San Pedro we were given some excellent information from the cheery guys at Cumbres 6000, but despite this we’re still not exactly sure about the route up the mountain, so continue up the road to 5670m where a path leads off from a small refugio. The way forward is now clearer.
But it turns out to be on horribly loose sand and rocks. Anna is feeling the altitude from our high camp and decides to stay in the tent while we head up to the summit. Probably a good idea – mountain boots and walking poles are necessary up here – equipment she didn’t have with her.
Higher up, we reach the ‘Teta’, or breast’s nipple. It’s a rough scramble over boulders to get to the 5980m top…
…from where there are fantastic panoramas of volcanoes and lakes. The dust from jeeps racing through the Lagunas route is also visible…
We descend to camp, then head south, pushing our bikes along the crater road, to its southern lip. The giant breast still looms above.
There are a couple of small penitente fields blocking the road in the crater. A swift kick sees them fall like dominoes.
At the lip, the famous Lagunas Blanca and Verde put in an appearance, along with Volcanes Juriques and Licancabur.
We descend slowly…
…with regular stops to gasp at the view.
Though from above the surface looks good, it’s all earthy gravel. We don’t so much ride it, as plough it.
Haz points out the Inca ruins on Licancabur where we spent a windy night back in 2010…
…then begin the tight series of hairpins down to less vertical ground. Neil’s about 50m above Anna here – no head-on collision occurs.
Chile is a country littered with land mines, dating back to Pinochet days. Online maps mark a mine field right here, but we don’t see it from the road, and live to ride another day.
After ploughing three none-too-straight 13km furrows, the road improves and we have visions of being in San Pedro for tea. But these are soon shattered when the track turns into this…
…quite extraordinary surface.
Neil’s Google Earth planning is then shown up to be a bit sloppy. The expected zoom downhill to town hits some small snags, and we go wrong a couple of times. But what’s not to like about a short push back up towards this perfect cone?
We find a good road with tyre tracks and descend a few kms. Only to discover we’ve gone the length of a peninsula guarded by sheer sided ravines. Time to about-turn again and take that other route…
Here’s one of those ravines, the following morning once we’ve found an easy way over it higher up. We were surprised to come across such topography in these parts – it’s normally all gentle rolling plateau and hill.
Our progress speeds up, but just before reaching the paving near San Pedro we hit a different surface, and make curves in the sand.
At the junction with the paving is this mine field, only 10km out of tourist central San Pedro. For a nation with pretensions of being a first world country, we find it odd that Chile hasn’t bothered ridding itself of its minefields yet. Still over 160 fields, and 100,000 mines yet to be cleared…
At least the Chilean government claims they’re all clearly marked with warning signs such as this. If true, it makes it pretty difficult to stumble into one by mistake. The huge volcanic cone of Sairecabur lurks in the distance, and our adventure ends as we hit the tarmac and roll down back to town.