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Desert heat

Sunday, December 11th 2005

I stocked up on more cakes from the cafe across the road before leaving Calama to go to San Pedro de Atacama. The bus journey took us through some forbidding Atacama scenery, rocky canyons and exposed plains and barely a speck of green in sight, and it seemed amazing to me that people could make a journey like this, through some of the harshest terrain in the world, by bus. My fellow passengers were mostly locals and I looked around at them, feeling some kind of envy that they lived in this remarkable place.

I arrived in San Pedro in the early afternoon, and the sun beat down on the low whitewashed buildings which glared fiercely. I found a hostel and checked in, and wandered around the tiny village, quickly exploring more or less all of it. It was clearly a town that lived off tourism, but it didn't seem as in-your-face about it as El Calafate or Pucón had been. El Calafate seemed to be built with wealthy visitors in mind, while Pucón was a middle-class Chilean sort of place, but San Pedro was definitely about backpackers. It made for a sociable time but I never much like places where local culture has been overwhelmed by outsiders. It's the central problem of travel really - I want to visit amazing places and see spectacular things, but I don't really want anyone else to.

I hired a bike in San Pedro, and spent a day exploring the surrounding desert. Fortunately I got a sensible machine, far more realistic a proposition than the contraption I'd hired in Puerto Madryn and definitely up to the task of cycling in the driest place on the planet. I started by heading north to the Pukará de Quitor, a hilltop fort which was the site of a last stand during the Spanish conquest. The views from here over the desert showed what an anomaly San Pedro is, with trees and vegetation in an otherwise unremitting sea of light brown.

Further north, I spent a while in the Quebrada del Diablo, a twisting narrow canyon that cuts deep into the hills. I don't know how far I went down it - I started by cycling but before too long the floor of the canyon was too rough to make that worthwhile, so I left the bike and went on by foot. It was an amazing place - just hot sand, orange rocks and blue skies, and if I stood still and held my breath the silence was total. It was obvious that water had rushed violently through here at some point, but extremely hard to believe that could ever happen in the arid heat of the middle of the day.

After the Quebrada, I headed a little bit further down the road to what was allegedly the Inca ruins of Catarpe. But either I didn't go to the right place, or Catarpe is really rubbish - there seemed to be nothing at all to see except a stone wall which could have been built yesterday. It was now far too hot to realistically explore any more, so I headed back to San Pedro for lunch. I'd taken plenty of water and drunk pints and pints, but still I'd almost lost my voice thanks to the extreme dryness. I found a shop selling ice cream in San Pedro and decided that for health reasons I should buy some. One portion left me feeling only partially restored, but a second had me feeling like doing more cycling, and as the afternoon heat gradually receded, I set out for the Valle de la Luna, an area of rock formations 17km south of San Pedro, to catch the sunset there.

This was far less fun than the morning's cycling had been. Earlier, there hadn't been even a breath to disturb the hot stillness, but now in the late afternoon a wind had sprung up from the west, and it was getting stronger by the second. Although it was much cooler than it had been, the wind was hot, and it felt like I was cycling into a hairdryer as I slowly pedalled down the tarmac toward the valley. The scenery was stunning, barren beyond belief and with towering volcanoes fringing the horizon, but I was beginning to get angry with the wind. After a few kilometres the tarmac stopped and I was on a sandy track, with the wind still blowing right at me, and every time I stopped for a second to catch my breath, the wind seemed to drop to nothing, only to start up again when I pushed off. At times I even struggled to cycle downhill. I cycled on in a furious rage, cursing the desert and the wind and thinking I could have been sat on an air-conditioned tour bus which would have cost me less than my bike hire had.

But eventually the valley appeared, and as soon as I wasn't cycling any more I enjoyed the cycling I'd just done. The valley looked alive in the blazing evening light, and I scrambled up the sides to get stunning views over the surroundings, with Volcán Licancábur standing solemnly over everything. After the Sun had set the light quickly began to fade, and I set off for the return cycle. This was massively more fun, and with the wind behind me it took me barely half an hour to get back to San Pedro. By the end of the journey it was almost dark except for the light of the full moon, and I felt pretty pleased with 50 kilometres of cycling in the world's driest desert.

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